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Monday, 12 September 2011

Tory Planning Sleaze exposed - so soon!

Sometimes there is a story which needs almost no comment or explanation because we all instinctively recognize it as embodying all our worst fears about a certain group or person. This is such a story. It tells us that all our worst fears about the greedy, self interested, base commercialist and corporatist entity, laughably called the Conservative Party, are even truer than we feared. They just don't care a damn about England except as an opportunity for personal gain.

There is a well worn adage that Labour corruption is usually around Contracts and Tory corruption is usually around Planning Permissions. Half of that adage seems proven by this story alone!

Melanie Phillips has excelled herself, as has the Telegraph, and both should be congratulated but we should all be writing blistering letters to our MPs - although there would seem to be no point in my case, as mine is Eric Pickles himself!

How could the Tories - of all people - let developers rip out the lungs of England?

By Melanie Phillips on 12th September 2011

Once upon a time, the Conservative Party actually believed in conserving. At the very core of its being, it possessed a visceral desire to protect and preserve what was valuable — or indeed, invaluable — to our society.

If there was one issue above all others with which the party was closely identified, it was conserving the countryside.

Indeed, even when David Cameron decided that the Tories had to identify themselves with modernisation and change, the symbol he chose for the party was a tree.

English idyll: The village green at Alfriston East Sussex

That seemed to reflect both traditional conservative values and the fashionable preoccupation with the environment. Yet now it might seem that the party should change its symbol once again — to a tree torn up by its roots.

For the Government is trying to ram through nothing less than the destruction of swathes of the countryside by changing the planning laws to make it easier to build on greenfield sites.

Despite its claim that this will give local people more of a say in planning decisions, the reality is that — given the inbuilt presumption in favour of development — if local communities object to house- building, their opposition will be flattened along with the woods and hedgerows.

Even village greens will be under threat, since with communities being forced to pay up to £1,000 to apply to save green spaces from the developers, it is less likely they will do so.

In short, these plans would change much of England’s green and pleasant land into a continuous urban sprawl — what has been called the greatest threat to the countryside since World War II.

Even worse is the whiff of corruption that is beginning to emanate from these proposals. For over the past few days, the claim has surfaced that the Conservative Party’s palm is being greased by those who stand to gain financially from this change in the planning laws.

According to reports, dozens of property firms have given a total of £3.3 million to the party over the past three years, including large gifts from companies seeking to develop rural land.

In addition, it is claimed, property developers are paying thousands of pounds for access to senior Conservative MPs.

The Property Forum, a Tory donors’ club, is charging ‘key players’ within the industry £2,500 a year for breakfast meetings to ‘discuss current topics’ with top-ranking Conservatives.

The Forum raises around £150,000 a year for the Conservatives and is advertised prominently on the party’s website.

Brownfield: Development in London's Docklands have shown how wastelands can be brought back into use and profits made

The Government has furiously denied that members of the Property Forum helped shape its proposals. But Michael Slade, the Forum’s chairman and chief executive of the property developer Helical Bar, has boasted that the donors’ club plays a key role in shaping the party’s planning policy. Not so much cash for access as cash for concrete.

Maybe this is an empty boast: but there’s worse still. At the weekend, there were further claims that senior figures in the house-building industry were involved in drafting these planning reforms — including an executive from the house-builder Taylor Wimpey.

Three out of a four-strong panel recruited by Housing Minister Greg Clark to help rewrite the planning regulations reportedly had some kind of personal involvement in the building industry. To add insult to injury, just about every minister involved in these proposals has blocked development proposals in his own back yard.

Chancellor George Osborne and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles opposed the building of waste facilities in their constituencies; Mr Pickles also opposed the building of an old people’s home.

Gaffe: Minister Greg Clark

Greg Clark, meanwhile, the minister who is leading these reforms, fiercely opposed the previous Labour government’s plan to build 6,000 new homes in and around his Tunbridge Wells constituency.

He called this proposal a ‘nationally imposed hike in housing numbers [that] will place yet more pressure on our precious green spaces’, and said brownfield sites must be the priority for building.

What a miraculous transformation appears to have taken place in Mr Clark’s brain! For now he is accusing those who are making exactly the same argument against his own proposals of ‘nihilistic selfishness’ on the grounds they are blocking homes for young couples.

As the opposition has mounted, the Government has even claimed it is being subjected to a ‘carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers’.

Ah yes — those rabid Left-wing revolutionaries of the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Chartered Institution of Water And Environmental Management and the Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds. Just who do ministers think they are kidding with this absurd claim?

Indeed, it’s the Government’s own battle-cry of ‘affordable housing’ which is actually the classic Left-wing position.

There’s no doubt that more houses are, indeed, urgently needed. Much of the reason for this lies with the ruinous policy of mass immigration pursued by the Labour government, as well as the breakdown of the family into multiple households.

If the immigration rate continues to skyrocket, by 2025 the population will have risen by some 11 million over 15 years. To cope, Britain would have to build the equivalent of some 22 cities. Rather than despoil the countryside, wouldn’t it be preferable to restrict immigration to sustainable levels?

Protected: The lake District, protected from unwarranted development by its National Park status, but under constant pressure

Nevertheless, this is not the whole story. Official figures show more than 300,000 homes have been sitting empty for more than six months.

There is also said to be enough ‘brownfield’ or previously developed land for an additional three million homes. One reason this potential has not been turned into homes is that housing developers are reluctant to build when house prices are low as they will make less profit.

In other words, much could be done before having to resort to concreting over the countryside. Yet the Government appears determined instead on a course that offends the English in particular at a profound level.

For one of their special characteristics is their passionate love affair with the countryside. It plays a key part in England’s identity, celebrated as it is in its literature, music and art.

Its importance was specifically recognised in the post-war planning laws, which were designed to protect what was special and precious about the English landscape.

Indeed, it is surely not too fanciful to say the landscape is part of the English national character. It helps give it its solidity, rooting it in that which lies beyond the ephemeral constructs of mankind.

It helps the English to love their country. It elevates them through exposure to a store of natural beauty. It simply makes them feel better to be alive.

Breathing space: An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Green Belt land, near High Wycombe

Yet much of this is to be destroyed in an act of sustained vandalism by a political party that laughably calls itself conservative, but instead intends to let the market rip out the very lungs of England.

The Chancellor says the existing planning laws act as a brake to economic growth. The refrain that everything in society has to be subordinate to economics sounds remarkably familiar. Wasn’t this supposed to be the ‘nasty party’ philistinism that Mr Cameron was determined to bury?

Didn’t the Cameroons arrive at the blinding realisation that there was more to a civilised society than market forces? Has the Chancellor decided to reverse direction on that particular road to Damascus?

The Government is having an increasingly desperate fight to ram these changes through because it has brilliantly managed to unite the Right and the Left against it.

Conservatives have watched with dismay as the Cameroons have ridden roughshod over one conservative principle after another. However, it is in the meadows and copses of England that Mr Cameron may meet his Waterloo.

Green Belt: Land that has not been previously built on is usually cheaper to develop

Hands Off Our Land
Monday 12 September 2011

Planning minister's in pact with developers over reforms

Greg Clark, the planning minister, privately has urged property developers to lobby David Cameron amid concerns that his planning reforms will be blocked, according to a leaked email seen by The Telegraph.

Greg Clark, the planning minister, is spearheading plans to overhaul England's planning system Photo: CHRISTOPHER PLEDGER

By Andrew Porter, Christopher Hope and Robert Winnett

Property developers privately admitted that the minister's objectives "align with ours" and said they had "earned more brownie points than we could ever imagine" by helping him.

Mr Clark is spearheading plans to overhaul England's planning system, to encourage development by simplifying the rules. This newspaper has launched a campaign opposing the changes.

The minister has publicly insisted that he is introducing carefully balanced proposals taking into account both environmental and economic concerns.

However, the leaked email will add to growing fears that the minister has become too close to the property industry and is working alongside developers to force through reforms, which establish a "presumption in favour of sustainable development".

The message was sent between senior members of the British Property Federation, a lobbying group for developers, housebuilders and supermarkets, following private discussions with Mr Clark and his officials.
In it, Ghislaine Trehearne, the group's policy officer, disclosed the minister's fears that Mr Cameron may back down on the reforms following public opposition.

"Greg Clark and his officials are … deeply concerned at the level of opposition that has been provoked by The National Trust and are worried that Number 10 might be spooked by this mobilisation of middle England and do the sort of U-turn that they did on the forestry sell-off," she wrote.

"We have been firing off letters to the press, and have sent a letter to No 10 supported by the leading developers in the commercial property industry."

The email also appears to confirm fears among campaigners that the changes to the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) are being driven by the Treasury, which is looking for ways to stimulate the economy, at the expense of the natural environment.

The email continues: "The upshot of all this is that minister Greg Clark is delighted with the BPF and hugely grateful for our effort. He is of the opinion that the Chancellor will stand firm in the face of opposition from National Trust members in the shires – but he doesn't believe we can afford to let up and should seize every opportunity to press the case for planning reform.

"We are not, of course, a mouthpiece for CLG [the Communities and Local Government department] ministers but on this occasion their objectives definitely align with ours – so we can afford to be enthusiastic in our support, with the advantage that we have now earned more brownie points than we could ever imagine." The email appears to have been sent at the end of last month.

Developers who were sent the email include Sue Willcox, head of planning at Sainsbury's; Niall Tipping from Grosvenor Estates; Nigel Hawkey, head of planning at Quintain Estates, and Emma Cariaga, head of strategic projects at Land Securities.

Disclosure of the message comes after The Telegraph revealed that the Conservatives had accepted millions of pounds from developers – and a special club had been set up that allowed developers to effectively buy places at meetings with ministers and senior Tories.

Yesterday, it emerged that senior members of the housebuilding industry helped draft the wording of the government's consultation document.

Jack Dromey, Labour's shadow communities minister, said the Government needed to "come clean" over its links to property developers. A spokesman for The National Trust said: “It saddens us but doesn’t really surprise us that the developers are in the minister’s pocket. All those who are 'pro’ the NPPF are those who stand to gain.”

The news comes as up to 80 MPs and peers were due to meet today in the first public show of discontent about the policy. Last night, a Government source said: “Number 10 are fully behind our planning reforms and fully behind what we are doing. The Government utterly rejects any suggestion that policy is being driven by property developers.”

Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation, defended the email. She said: “I don’t accept that this amounts to collusion – it’s simply us doing our job to support the interests of our members.”

Property developers pay for access to Conservatives

Property developers are paying thousands of pounds for access to senior Conservative MPs, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.

Major players within the property industry have paid for access to senior politicians Photo: TROIKA
By Heidi Blake
9:14PM BST 09 Sep 2011

The Property Forum, a Tory donors’ club, is charging “key players” within the industry £2,500 a year for breakfast meetings to “discuss current topics” with top-ranking Conservatives.

The disclosure, which is likely to cause a new “cash for access” row, comes after the Government was accused of granting developers “a state licence to print money” by overhauling planning laws to make it easier to build on greenfield sites.

It will lead to concerns that key Conservative policies could have been influenced by major players within the property industry who paid for access to senior politicians.

The forum raises around £150,000 a year for the Conservatives and is advertised prominently on the party’s website.

Its entry on the donor’s page says the forum is “for key players within the property industry to meet senior Members of Parliament over breakfast, discuss current topics and learn about related issues”.

Grant Shapps, the housing minister, met members three months before the general election to explain the Conservatives’ Green Paper on planning ahead of its publication.

Michael Slade, the forum’s chairman and chief executive of the property developer Helical Bar, was highly critical of the party’s planning policies in opposition.

Writing in the Property Week trade magazine last February, he warned that empowering councils to make planning decisions locally could “paralyse” house-building. But critics of the new policy have warned that the reforms, which include a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, would effectively sideline councils and amount to a “developers’ charter”.

Mr Slade, who has donated more than £300,000 to the Conservatives individually and through Helical Bar, has claimed that the club plays a key role in shaping the party’s planning policy.

He said in an interview in 2008: “One issue is the Tories seem to be strangely seen as 'nimby’, and we are looking at how we get over this.

“We are talking about how strategic developments and infrastructure can encourage local boroughs to see the benefits of development.” Mr Slade also claimed to have been in close contact with Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, as he formulated his policy to build 50,000 affordable homes in the capital.

The Conservatives were mired in a “cash for access” row in August last year, three months after coming to power, after it emerged that David Cameron was raising money for his party by offering to attend dinners with businessmen who donate £50,000 a year.

Despite the controversy, The Leader’s Group is still offering its members the chance to “join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches”. Members of Team 2000, another donors’ club, are given the chance to hear about the party’s policies in government “first-hand” from Mr Cameron and senior MPs at “a lively programme of drinks receptions, dinner and discussion groups”.

The Conservatives last night denied that members of the Property Forum had a hand in shaping government policy.

A spokesman said: “The Conservative Property Forum is a discussion forum for people with an interest in property.

“It in no way influences policy. Any relevant donations made by members of this forum are publicly declared to the Electoral Commission just like all other relevant donations.”

Mr Slade was unavailable for comment last night.

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