UK Politics

Tory conference: Green Belt safe with us, says minister

Tractor sign
Image caption Ministers have insisted the countryside is safe in their hands

The Green Belt is safe in the coalition's hands - despite warnings to the contrary from the National Trust, a minister has told Tory council leaders.

Local government minister Bob Neill said he was "saddened" by the Trust's reaction to the planning shake-up.

And any suggestion he was "undermining" the Green Belt was wrong.

Critics fear a new national planning system will give developers a free hand to build over the English countryside.

The coalition is attempting to simplify Britain's complex planning system to boost economic growth and kick-start house building, which has sunk to levels last seen in the 1920s.

But its draft National Planning Policy Framework contains a "presumption in favour of sustainable development" - which critics such as the National Trust have interpreted as giving the green light to developers.

'Regrettable'

Mr Neill sought to reassure Tory council leaders, many from rural areas, that this was not the case at a packed fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.

"It is not and never has been our intention to give carte blanche for building all over the countryside," he said.

"It is wrong to suggest we are undermining the green belt."

He described the Trust's campaign against the shake-up as "regrettable".

But he promised greater clarity on what "sustainable" means in practice - and what the government's definition of "countryside" is - when the current consultation on the changes ends on 17 October.

He also faced calls for greater clarity on how the new framework would work with the government's commitment to giving local people a greater say over planning decisions.

Speaking after the Town and Country Planning Association meeting, Mr Neill said he could not guarantee that there would be no development in open countryside or in conservation areas.

Local authorities had always been able to apply for land to be exempted from areas protected by statutory Green Belt legislation and this would not change when the new planning laws came into effect, he explained.

Job creation

Some reports suggest building firms have interpreted the proposed new rules as clearing the way for Green Belt development.

But although he could not comment on individual cases, Mr Neill said developers should not view it as giving them "carte blanche".

Earlier, Mr Neill's ministerial colleague, Francis Maude, used more robust language in his denunciation of conservation groups' fears.

He told The Independent On Sunday: "I think this idea that creating a presumption in favour of sustainable development is somehow a massive erosion of the ability to conserve, is bollocks, frankly.

"Actually the presumption that we are putting in place is arguably more constrictive, because it's a presumption in favour of sustainable development instead of just development.

"So I think there's a lot of misapprehension about this."

In her keynote conference speech, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman also vowed to maintain protection for the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and National Parks.

And she promised business start-up grants would be "re-focused" to create jobs in rural areas.

Mrs Spelman also announced plans to tackle tree diseases which threatened UK landscapes and forestry.

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