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February 29, 2012

From William Cash: The Dirty Secret of the Planning Appeal System

By Spear's

If Greg Clark, the planning minister in charge of revising the NPPF, does not tighten protection for the approx just 1,300 ’heritage tourism’ attractions and buildings that are open to the public (and contribute ’7.4 billion a year), Britain is at risk of becoming an embarrassing heritage graveyard

WHEN I WAS in Davos, there was much talk about the party that Mick Jagger refused to attend for fear of being seen as a ‘political football’. It would have been well worth being there to hear David Cameron talk about the GREAT Britain campaign which wants to show how Britain’s heritage can be used to to generate ‘long-term’ growth and kick-start the economy. To celebrate what makes Britain special.

So keen is Cameron on the idea of his heritage mission that Jeremy Hunt, the minister of state, is being dispatched on a ‘Britain Is Great’ global tour of no fewer than seventeen cities. He is trumpeting the message that ‘if we play our cards right’ the campaign will generate 4.6 million visitors who will spend £2.3 billion. The government has called on the public to send ‘postcards’ to friends and family abroad reminding them how unique Britain’s history is.

But as we say in our leader, the campaign hides how the National Planning Policy Framework, with its presumption in favour of sustainable development, is going to tread all over that heritage.

If Greg Clark, the planning minister in charge of revising the NPPF, does not tighten protection for the approx just 1,300 ‘heritage tourism’ attractions and buildings that are open to the public (and contribute £7.4 billion a year), Britain is at risk of becoming an embarrassing heritage graveyard. Back in October such fears were confirmed, with the example of a government inspector interpreting the new NPPF in exactly this way to allow development close to Grade I Great Coxwell Barn in Oxfordshire, one of the most important 14th-century buildings in the country. Following that article, I met with Clark, who assured me that heritage protection would not be diluted in the NPPF.

He asked me to keep him informed of any further worrying examples. Consulting with such bodies as the National Trust, the Historic Houses Association and the Heritage Alliance (the umbrella body of the UK heritage lobby), Spear’s has just submitted the depressing results of this new survey (‘Heritage and the NPPF’) to Greg Clark’s offices in Victoria.

In December the situation worsened, with a flood of super-sized wind farms being approved that leave no doubt about the government’s true intentions when it comes to the EU march of the turbines — utterly regardless of how ‘exceptional’ the heritage. On 19 December Paul Griffiths upheld an appeal by German energy giant E.ON which will desecrate the famous Northants battle site of Naseby — the second most important battle in English history, which led the way to the birth of our parliamentary democracy.

This is ironic, as the latest decisions are single inspectors upholding energy company appeals against local democracy. At Naseby, E.ON is being allowed to build its turbines on land owned by the charitable trust of Kelmarsh Hall, former home of the interior decorator and socialite Nancy Lancaster.

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The card-playing analogy used by Jeremy Hunt seems especially apt as the planning system now increasingly resembles an unwinnable game of Top Trumps, with a single inspector being able to override any heritage considerations, however ‘significant’ or iconic, by invoking Planning Policy Statement 22 (PPS22), which states that ‘renewable energy’ should be ‘accommodated through England’ to match the binding EU targets that Chris Huhne has signed up for, calling for up to 32,000 turbines by 2020.
of the planning appeal system is how energy companies simply throw money at heritage ‘consultants’ to get them to say what they want at public enquiries based on ‘desktop’ research and without any local knowledge or even visiting a site. They use the same consultants for each appeal, paying for them to travel down from Wales or Scotland when they give their ‘independent’ and often highly selective evidence.

It will come as no surprise to learn that when the Naseby wind farm was first proposed in 2008, it was E.ON which ‘commissioned’ — ie paid — the Battlefield Trust to conduct an archaeological survey. When it found no musket bullets, E.ON issued a press release saying that the site was miles away from the battlefield and had no impact, which was repeated by BBC News.

But as the former chairman of the Naseby Battlefield Trust, military historian Martin Marix Evans, told me, E.ON simply twisted the report by omitting to mention that the turbines were being located where the troops camped before battle, greatly harming the historic setting. ‘This was not reasonable and we thought it was pretty dubious. But it wasn’t surprising given E.ON’s intellectual capabilities. They only seemed to read half the report. They used incomplete information and as a historian I found it highly offensive.’

Even Inspector Griffiths, after a battlefield site visit on 10 October, admitted E.ON was wrong, saying the wind turbines would have a ‘distinct visible presence’ and would be an ‘obvious’ modern intrusion on the battlefield. Yet, again, the EU cause of renewables won over heritage or ‘setting’.

The case for reform of the current NPPF planning draft in relation to heritage protection is urgent and overwhelming. There is a strong case for specially designated protection in the NPPF to safeguard the ‘setting’ of heritage tourism assets of significance, in particular those that directly contribute to economic growth by being open to the public.

I have no doubt from meeting with Greg Clark that he does want to create a balanced and sustainable planning system, and that he does not want planning development appeals and protests and legal battles up and down the country which will end up costing votes.

However, unless he gets his advisers to maintain the safeguards to heritage, the postcards of this country that visitors will be sending around the world will soon be not of dreaming spires but rather an English landscape spoiled by short-term thinking and a planning system reduced to a Tarot game where the inspector always holds the Heritage Death Card.

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