Friday, October 12, 2012

Conservatives and conservation

When 700 people take to the streets in protest at a planning application, you'd think someone in authority might pay attention.
Alas for the residents of Hagley, their campaign is unlikely to make a blind bit of difference.
Hagley is just one of the early victims of the Government's planning free-for-all which will concrete over large swathes of countryside.
What baffles and enrages many people is that while the bulldozers prepare to dig up the Green Belt, nothing is done about the blighted, derelict wastelands we see all over the Black Country.
How can it possibly make sense for green fields to be turned into housing estates when there are hundreds of acres of brownfield land just begging to be reclaimed?
The people of Hagley are right to complain about the 175 houses to built on land sold to Cala homes by Lord Cobham.
Of course the development will put more pressure on schools and doctors and clog up the roads even more. That's what happens whenever and wherever new homes are built.
You can't really blame Lord Cobham for cashing in. It costs a fortune to run Hagley Hall and the family have been flogging off bits of the estate for decades.
The problem is that now, more than at any time since the post-war building boom, the planning system is entirely in favour of new development.
Nobody seems to care any longer where it should be allowed or who it should be for.
In its desperation to get the economy moving again, the Government is bending over backwards to accommodate the demands of property developers.
If they say they stand more chance of turning a profit by developing a green field than reclaiming some bomb site in Bilston then local councils are expected to roll over and play dead.
Indeed, the Government has created an incentive - some might call it a blatant bribe - to make sure local councils do as they are told.
It's called the New Homes Bonus and it was invented to prevent the policy of "localism" undermining Whitehall's plans to concrete over the countryside.
Localism is supposed to mean that decisions are no longer taken by anonymous civil servants and here-today-gone-tomorrow Ministers.
It's supposed to mean decisions are taken by local people for local people, in other words, by councillors.
But Ministers know that, left to their own devices, councillors can't be trusted to turn ploughshares into bulldozers.
Some councillors may get it into their heads that their job is to represent the views of the voters and that would never do.
So, while in theory regional planning policies have been scrapped, the truth is that the Government is pursuing the same old war by other means.
And one of those means is the New Homes Bonus.
Last year, councils trousered £432 million in New Homes Bonuses, which works out at £2,710 per new house built. And there's plenty more where that came from.
Thanks to this scam, Bromsgrove Council, which is responsible for deciding whether to back the Hagley homes plan, will make about £470,000 just for doing what the Government tells it to do.
Do not under-estimate the power of this sort of chicanery. Who knows? Maybe just before the next local elections, they'll announce plans to spend £200,000 on a new children's playground in Hagley and everybody will be suitably grateful.
Ironically, this policy was introduced by Grant Shapps when he was Minister for Housing. He has now been promoted to Chairman of the Conservative Party.
He definitely deserves that job because now he will have to try explaining his ludicrous housing development policies to the very Tories who will be most badly affected by them.
For, as we know, Conservatives tend to live in leafy parts like Hagley and I shouldn't be surprised to find a majority of those who took to the streets last Saturday had voted Tory at the last election.
And, of course, they are hardly unique. All over the West Midlands, Tory-voting settlements face unwanted expansion.
Yet the inner city areas which truly need reviving will continue to be neglected.
It's hardly surprising. If a developer can start with a clean sheet - a green field - it's much easier, quicker and cheaper to build a housing estate than it would be to reclaim the unwanted site of some former factory.
Yet in an era when everyone is supposedly committed to the environment, it's obvious which kind of development is "green".
The Government's job should be to make sure our millions are spent where they can do most good.
Places like Bromsgrove should actually lose money if they approve green-field developments while any bonuses should be devoted to helping developers clean up wasteland to make it suitable for new housing.
And then there are the half a million homes standing empty up and down the country - thousands of them owned by the very councils now succumbing to the Government's bribery.
Why not refurbish them and put them to good use before a single tree gets chopped down?

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