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Conservatives and their conservatories
It's curious how banal and boring the big idea of prime ministers can be.
Back in the 1990s, to a fanfare of trumpets, John Major announced... the cones hot line.
Now David Cameron has decided the best way to kick-start Britain’s spluttering economy into life is to allow householders to build bigger conservatories without planning permission.
Does he really imagine that this relaxation of the rules will encourage millions of home owners to splash out cash on fancy new extensions when previously they were perfectly content with what they had?
Isn’t the most likely outcome of allowing extensions twice as big as they are today without planning permission that it will increase neighbour disputes rather than bring about a boom in building?
And what does the premier who promised us the greenest government ever have to say about this wholesale grabbing of back gardens?
Anyone who has spent too much time in planning committees, as I have, can see there is an urgent need to simplify and reform the current system.
Often really minor matters are considered at length by both officers and councillors.
At the other end of the scale, huge investments are made in grandiose county or city plans (there is one gestating in Brighton and Hove at the moment) which are bland, boring and largely unread.
They are easily knocked off course by events and are seldom worth the extremely expensive paper on which they are written.
When major schemes are proposed which really could have an effect on the local economy, they are considered in tremendous detail in a process which can cost developers millions of pounds and take many years.
The result, as has happened twice just on one site, the King Alfred in Hove, can be that eventually permission is granted but by that time the applicant has run out of funds.
It would be far better to consider these schemes in principle covering just the major issues, and look at the detail only if the project is thought to have any future.
Councils also need to make planning a priority as it has been in the past. There was a time when most people in the city could name the chief planning officers in Brighton and Hove who each headed his own department.
Ken Fines and Michael Ray both achieved a great deal in their respective towns for conservation and development.
Now planning has been subsumed into some giant department and few citizens could name the current incumbent.
David Cameron also had some worrying proposals about relaxing planning laws for building on the green belt.
Much of Sussex is either in the South Downs national park or one of the large areas of outstanding natural beauty where there is a general presumption against development.
This puts pressure on places such as Burgess Hill, Uckfield and Billingshurst which have already been swollen by suburbia to become several times their natural size.
This land is not exactly in the green belt but planning authorities are likely to be swayed by the Government’s developer-friendly attitude.
If refusal is given, the chances are increasing that an appeal to the planning inspectorate will succeed and could even lead to the awarding of substantial costs against the council concerned.
Another bit of bad news is waiving a requirement to provide a proportion of affordable homes in major housing plans if developers can show they make the scheme unviable.
It would be far better in crowded counties like Sussex to allow only affordable homes unless a convincing case can be made for private housing.
So it’s likely that the green light has been given to build houses for rich people from London on precious green spaces in Sussex without benefiting locals at all.
You have only to look at Bolnore Village near Haywards Heath to see the boring, expensive housing estates that will soon cover much of the county if we are not careful.
I’m not saying there should be no new housing at all or even that it should all be on brownfield sites. Only last week I mentioned Toad’s Hole Valley in Hove as land that could be partially developed.
But the Prime Minister’s relaxations of restrictions will at worst grab great chunks of the countryside for housing and favour incomers over Sussex people.
On a more minor level, they will lead to disputes among neighbours, minimal economic activity and no boost in popularity for the Tories. David Cameron will be lucky if large conservatories aid the Conservatives.