Tonight’s Leaders debate on ITV might have been long on numbers, with seven Party Leaders taking part and short on water cooler moments, apart perhaps from Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish Nationalist Party turning herself into a national political personality. However it did contain one potentially significant indicator of UKIP’s election fighting strategy which Party strategists at Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat HQ would do well to take note of. Remarkably for this General Election campaign it is also an issue of importance to the heritage and environmental sector. During a section of the debate devoted to housing UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage repeated his party’s commitment to prioritising and providing support to Brown Field developments rather than those on Green Field sites. This was clearly a strategic decision by the UKIP Leader, which was designed to unsettle candidates from other parties fighting seats where there are controversial development plans in place.
Mr Farage’s answer paraphrased UKIP’s current policy which is as follows
Housing and planning
– UKIP will protect the Green Belt.
– Planning rules in the NPPF will be changed to make it easier to build on brownfield sites instead of greenfield sites. Central government is to list the nationally available brownfield sites for development and issue low-interest bonds to enable decontamination.
– Houses on brownfield sites will be exempt from Stamp Duty on first sale and VAT relaxed for redevelopment of brownfield sites.
– Planning Permission for large-scale developments can be overturned by a referendum triggered by the signatures of 5% of the District or Borough electors collected within three months.
This policy is in stark contrast to the thrust of planning policy and decisions under the Conservative led coalition where there has been consistent criticism that the planning regime is skewed to favour large developments on Green Field sites. For example new build projects are zero rated for VAT whereas conversions of existing buildings are not. While according to many in the heritage and environmental movement, the National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] introduced by the Coalition in 2012 to streamline the planning system, weakened protections for areas such as Green Belt at the same time as the Government’s statutory advisors, Natural England and English Heritage, now Historic England, were also weakened by cuts and changes to their remit requiring them to support “sustainable development.”
In a measure of the scale of the problem an analysis by the Campaign to Protect Rural England [CPRE], “GREEN BELT UNDER SIEGE: the NPPF three years on”, published on 27 March 2015 found
“There is particularly serious pressure in the Metropolitan Green Belt around London: houses planned in this area have nearly tripled since August 2013. At least three local authorities – Bradford, Durham and Northumberland – have claimed that economic growth justifies an ‘exceptional’ change to the Green Belt, exploiting a loophole in Government policy. Planning inspectors have signed off major releases of Green Belt for development around cities such as Leeds and Newcastle/ Gateshead where there is ample brownfield land available within the urban areas. “
In numerical terms the CPRE estimate that as of March 2015 – 219,535 houses were proposed for Green Belt sites as well as 1,205 hectares of land which was scheduled for industrial development, while David Cameron’s own backyard of Oxfordshire faces a build of 3,510 houses and 3.8 hectares of warehousing on Green Belt land.
Nobody is going to suggest that this one issue is going to sway tens of thousands of voters towards UKIP, particular when much of the rest of Mr Farage’s contribution to the evening took the form of routinely splenetic comments attacking immigrants, and the European Union and a rather less routine, somewhat ill judged and to many distasteful attack on immigrants with HIV which drew a sharp put down from Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. Not an approach designed to attract Green, Liberal Democrat and Labour voters who might otherwise be attracted by the environmental message. However, that is not the point. UKIP is playing the Green Belt v Brown Field card because the Party offers a particular threat in Conservative seats, mostly in the south of Britain and by raising it Mr Farage is warning the Conservative Party in particular that developments in rural areas which are not supported by the local population could cost seats, either directly, or by lifting the UKIP vote enough to split the center right vote and allow another Party to come through the middle.
There is a successful precedent for such a tactic. Opposition to the controversial Lodge Hill Development on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent, where it is proposed that 5000 homes will be built on former MoD land including on a SSSI, was a significant factor in the victory of Conservative defector Mark Reckless when he won the Rochester and Strood constituency for UKIP in a by election in 2014. There will be other rural constituencies, or constituencies with areas of Green Belt which are threatened by housing developments, where this kind of policy is likely to play well in the forthcoming General Election. Indeed, there may well be Candidates, most of whom will be Conservatives, who may well feel the need to temper their support for the Party Leadership’s perceived drive for growth and houses at the expense of the rural environment.
What might well also give such would-be MP’s pause for thought is the fact that after the 2010 General Election the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds [RSPB] pointed out that there were 56 constituencies where the majority of the winning MP was lower than the number of local members of the RSPB living in the constituency.
Conservative candidates might also recall the words of Sir Simon Jenkins, former Chair of the National Trust, who told the Daily Telegraph in 2014
“[Ukip leader] Nigel Farage regards [former planning Minister] Nick Boles as one of his best weapons. Where I have gone in my work in the National Trust, and where the ‘rule of Boles’, has applied, there ain’t many Tory voters left.”