MPs angry over rural planning

TORY MPs representing rural constituencies are furious that planning powers on the countryside are to be taken away from local councils and dealt with in Whitehall.

By Graham Dines

TORY MPs representing rural constituencies are furious that planning powers on the countryside are to be taken away from local councils and dealt with in Whitehall.

Suffolk Coastal's John Gummer - in charge of agricultural policy and then the environment under Margaret Thatcher and John Major - yesterday tried to force the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to make a statement to the Commons following a report in The Times headed "Labour plans to build on the countryside".

He asked the Speaker Michael Martin to intervene but was told: "The Deputy Prime Minister has not been in touch with me. It is up to him whether he wishes to make a statement."

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Mr Gummer said later it was laudable to boost jobs and wealth in the countryside, but that should not mean removing controls from counties and districts who put the interests of their communities first.

"My council Suffolk Coastal understands the needs of the people it serves, whereas the Deputy Prime Minister, who represents Hull, cannot possibly have knowledge of local sensitivities or the environment of the area.

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"This is a reactionary move, returning to the bad old days which I stopped, of indiscriminate building on greenfield sites. There is, of course, a hidden agenda - this Government has the worst record of council house building since 1918 and it is desperately attempting to redress its failure with a policy which it claims `will create more wealth' in the countryside."

South Suffolk Conservative MP Tim Yeo defended local authorities: "My district council Babergh has positive policies which encourage jobs and tourism - we don't need John Prescott sitting in Whitehall overturning the wishes to residents.

"Nobody in London can possibly understand the character of a particular locality or the concerns of those who live in it.

"Policies on schools and hospitals increasingly are being taken centrally- I do not want rural life added to this list."

Mr Yeo conceded, however, that people who live in the countryside did have to accept change. "Rural areas cannot be preserved in aspic for decades to come. But change has to be done in the best interests of the community and the environment

"I appreciate that in some areas, Nimbyism does exist. But the appeals process can overcome that. If planning applications are rejected, an appeal can be held and an inspector will look very carefully at all the aspects of the case."

David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) claimed the Government was embarking on the desecration of rural England by taking draconian powers to control planning.

"John Prescott seems to be saying that he does not trust county councils to generate economic growth in rural areas," said Mr Ruffley. "Although he is planning to centralise these powers, my fear is that they will be handed to regional authorities as part of his devolution agenda."

However, Braintree's Labour MP Alan Hurst, whose constituency includes large tracts of rural mid Essex, said he did not believe the Government's intention was to concrete over the countryside.

But Mr Hurst pointed out that the rural economy had to diversify because the number of jobs in agriculture and farming-related businesses had declined considerably and there was a need to boost employment opportunities in villages and smaller towns.

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