We are running out of time to stop the evil effects of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. It has reached report stage in the House of Lords and the opportunities to change it are now few. It looks like the government will get away with false claims that these changes are needed to permit development.
Take village greens. Clause 14 of the bill will outlaw applications to register greens on land which is threatened with development. The government claims that greens applications are delaying or thwarting development. Yet on BBC One’s Countryfile, recorded on 19 October the day after the bill was published, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, said: ‘We’ve had a few cases where late in the day there have been these vexatious applications [for greens], there has been a completely genuine planning application and it’s been stopped.’ A few cases. Exactly so.
The number of greens applications in relation to planning applications is minuscule. In the year ending June 2010, 71 per cent of planning applications were processed within 13 weeks. The number of greens registrations has dropped from 196 in 2008 to 103 in 2011. There is no evidence that greens applications are holding up development in more than a handful of cases. So there is no need for a wholesale change in the law, to the detriment of thousands of local people.
And then there is clause 22 which removes the right of parliament to rule on the fate of open space (ie land used for public recreation) when it is threatened with compulsory purchase through a development consent order (DCO). At present, if there is no exchange land or the exchange land is inadequate, the DCO is subject to special parliamentary procedure (SPP). Under clause 22 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will have the power to waive SPP when there is no exchange land or the exchange land is deemed too expensive. Parliament will no longer have the final say and the decision will no longer be democratic.
Since SPP has rarely been invoked (Wycombe Rye, pictured above, being a memorable exception, see blog passim), there is no evidence of the need to change it. If government knows of developments which are coming up which might affect open space, it should say so—and it would be more ingenuous to limit the effect of the clause to, say, five years than to make it permanent.
At the bill’s second-reading debate in the House of Commons on 5 November 2012, member after member spoke of the lack of evidence for the bill. Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton, Con) questioned the minister on what evidence he had on the scale of vexatious applications to register greens and asked what consideration had been given to the Open Spaces Society’s ‘milder and more modest’ proposals to change the guidelines, rather than legislation, to improve the process. Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole, Lib Dem) said: ‘I have examples of applications [for greens] holding up development, but I do not have overriding evidence that it is the case.’ Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent, Lab) summed it all up as ‘a dog’s dinner of a bill’.
Similar criticisms were made in the House of Lords’ second-reading debate on 8 January 2013, and at the other stages of the bill—but the government has shrugged them off.
With a big majority and small-minded dogma you can do anything. And so they will.