It is something of a standing joke in our family that when you revisit an old stomping ground after some time away someone will inevitably say the immortal words: “I remember when all this used to be fields.”
The sentence is usually spoken while staring at another strip of faceless industrial units, a soulless building block city of new housing or an out-of-town retail carbuncle.
I’m all for urban regeneration, I’m all in favour of providing new facilities for communities that are socially and economically deprived, I’m very supportive of any moves to create affordable housing. But we live on an island and a comparatively small one at that, so something’s got to give sooner or later.
The review (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/6208752.stm) by economist Kate Barker into our inadequate and antiquated planning laws is both long overdue and a step in the right direction. However, the radical shake-up the review proposes could be a little too bold.
Changes to planning regulations to take petty party politics – both on a local and national level – out of the decision-making process is progress in the right direction.
Having spent many a depressing morning or afternoon covering local authority planning committee meetings as a young reporter, it became patently obvious that many decisions – from the small-scale loft conversion of a family home to the larger-scale regeneration scheme – were taken for political rather than planning reasons.
The Barker review suggests a radical shake-up to create a centralised planning system to deal with major projects, freeing up local authorities and unravelling much of the red tape that sees many schemes strangled at a very early stage.
Such an approach would be welcome as, hopefully, it would signal an end to the interminable delays that hamper any large-scale development scheme whilst still ensuring local considerations are taken into account in a more dispassionate manner.
However, other recommendations in the report (http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk), such as easing planning regulations related to new housing developments, are a cause for concern.
There are many reasons to be wary, not leaast the fact that tens of thousands of houses in perfectly good condition are remaining empty or ear-marked for demolition in favour of constructing new, characterless, identikit housing estates.
Then there is the issue of the disappearing green belts.
Last year saw the 50th anniversary of the designation of green belt land and a survey commissioned by the Campaign for Rural England suggested 84% of us are opposed to building on undeveloped land (http://www.cpre.org.uk/).
The Government argued that a record 70% of all new building is now on brown-field land compared with 56% in 1997 and the amount of green belt land was increasing. However, critics counter with statistics that show whilst green belt had increased in areas where there was little development pressure it had been removed in areas of high housing demand, with 2,500 acres of green belt built over each year.
It is an emotive issue and not surprisingly it has become a highly politicised one too.
This new radical review needs to cut through the politics and emotions yet still strike an acceptable balance between development pressures and the protection of undeveloped sites.
Whatever the validity of the statistics trotted out by the various sides in this argument one thing is certain. That sentence about remembering long-lost acres of farmland and open spaces is heard a lot more frequently these days.