Land-sharks first, local people second

A few years ago, spivs working in the development sector hit on a cracking new wheeze. They bought fields outside towns and villages where plans to develop had been denied by the local council. Then they sold small housing plots, reassuring would-be buyers that, sooner or later, planning restrictions would be relaxed, earning the investor a fat profit.

It was certainly a nice little earner for the developer. An acre of land, bought at the agricultural price of the time, £4,000, could be divided into five or six plots and sold at £6,000 each. Councils responded to these schemes with outrage, and the legality of the process was questioned. But buyers poured in.

Now, thanks to the Government, the land-sharks who worked the deal will soon be in the money. In a move which, during less cynical times, would have embarrassed the most shamelessly avarice-friendly Thatcherite, the Chancellor – with a throwaway line in the Budget – has given the green light to an uncontrolled development free-for-all.

As usual with the current administration, the standard marketing buzz-words – “sustainable”, “community”, “local” – were deployed, never sounding less sincere. The reality is simple: the balance between business and local interests on a small, crowded island – a balance normally resolved by the planning system – has been abandoned.

“From today we will expect all bodies involved in planning to prioritise jobs and growth,” said Osborne. “The default answer to growth and development is ‘yes’.” Specifically, targets which have encouraged developers to use brownfield sites – and, according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, have saved green areas twice the size of Manchester over the past decade – are to be scrapped.

Local development plans, designed to prevent urban sprawl and loss of valuable countryside, are now presumably worthless. “There are lots of boring green fields,” a government adviser has said. With equal glee, a minister has predicted that “it will take 10 minutes to get planning permission”.

What joy there will be in the boardroom of Tesco. How champagne corks will be popping in the offices of property speculators everywhere. At a stroke, the opposition of those who considered the non-financial effects of big development – on human lives, on the environment, on the character of local communities – has been swept aside.

There was a brief moment when the Coalition’s talk of localism had seemed to threaten the right of business to make profits wherever it liked, but that, it turns out, was another marketing scam. Osborne’s phraseology – “we will expect”, “the default position will be…” – reveals a government every bit as determined to control from the centre as the last Labour administration.

So much for the idea that a new kind of Conservatism had arrived. The attitude of Labour politicians towards the countryside was cheerfully ignorant: conservationists were middle-class types concerned about their precious views. For all its much-vaunted commitment to local power, the Coalition has outdone Labour when it comes to cynicism. The countryside is fine, it believes, but profit is even better.

Here is the true face of Cameronism. Big business matters more than anything else. The system put in place to control it – flawed, sometimes clumsy, but generally working on behalf of communities – is dismissed as the red tape of town hall. Those who dare to raise questions of conservation and social effect are now “the enemies of enterprise”.

In fact, as Ireland has proved, removing all obstacles to development does not solve the housing crisis, and can lead to a sorry mess. Government ministers, in their well-appointed country properties, may be well-protected but, for millions of others, the tatty new housing estates, the municipal sprawl and the strangulating power of giant supermarkets threaten to scar the face of rural Britain for future generations.