Bloomberg News

Cure for Weak U.K. Economy Pits Villagers Against Developers

October 14, 2011

(Adds commercial real estate data in 10th paragraph.)

Oct. 14 (Bloomberg) -- English villager Matthew Champion is trying to live up to his name.

The 42-year-old is fighting a proposal by a malting company to add a truck depot to its plant near his home in Great Ryburgh in the Norfolk countryside. The plan was approved last month by the local municipality, which cited the U.K. government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework, one of its remedies for reviving the ailing economy by bolstering development.

“I can’t believe that the government is this dumb,” said Champion, whose village of about 700 people has one pub (the Blue Boar Inn), a butcher, a church and a store selling locally grown fruit and vegetables. “We already have a 16-acre factory in our backyard. We just didn’t want one on the patio as well. Everything about this is wrong.”

An overhaul of who can build what, where and how fast is kindling a nationwide spat pitting developers against conservationists. At stake is a policy to help nurture economic growth from a government coming under pressure to show it can prevent Britain from entering a second recession in three years.

A committee of lawmakers will hear evidence from industry associations on Oct. 17 before the government draws up the new legislation. Commercial development activity fell for the third straight month in September as the government slashed spending on infrastructure projects, according to a survey of about 200 construction companies published by Savills Plc yesterday.

Economic Tonic?

“It’s certainly no manifesto for rapacious development,” said Stuart Robinson, head of planning for the U.K. at Los Angeles-based property broker CBRE Group Inc. “The government is under pressure from all of us to help grow the economy and fossilizing the built environment will not support that.”

The number of homes built in England and Wales last year fell to the lowest during peacetime since 1924, the Department of Communities and Local Government estimates.

The new planning document has been whittled down from more than 1,000 pages of dense regulation to 52 pages that try to balance an area’s economic, social and environmental needs. In simplifying the legislation, the government is hoping that development and construction can kick-start Britain’s economy, according to Planning Minister Greg Clark.

‘Too Bureaucratic’

“The current planning system is too bureaucratic and unwieldy for local residents and local firms to use effectively,” Clark said in an e-mail requesting comment. “Its sheer complexity slows down decision making and frustrates the responsible, sustainable growth the country needs.”

Demand for commercial real estate in the U.K. declined in the third quarter for the first time in a year because of concern that the economy may not recover soon, a survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors showed today.

Gross domestic product rose at an annual pace of 0.6 percent in the second quarter, down from 1.6 percent in the first three months of the year, as the government implements the biggest budget cuts since World War II to narrow the deficit. A report this week showed unemployment rose to the highest in 15 years in the three months through August.

Opponents of the draft legislation such as Champion say that reforms may expose the countryside to unchecked Los Angeles-style urban sprawl not seen in Britain since 1935, when protected areas called greenbelts were proposed to keep the spread of London in check.

In Great Ryburgh, 119 miles northeast of the British capital, the Crisp Malting Group Ltd. used the draft bill to push through plans to build space for trucks, a fuel depot and two 3,000-ton silos. The company didn’t respond to calls seeking comment for this story.

‘Gross Misrepresentation’

North Norfolk District Council, which approved the development, said it was a “gross misrepresentation” by the opponents of the site that the new planning legislation was the main driver of the approval.

“On occasions, the taking of a difficult decision will mean a group or interest within the community will be disappointed with the position of the authority,” Keith Johnson of the council’s planning committee and Tom FitzPatrick, who is in charge of business and enterprise, said in a Sept. 15 letter to the Eastern Daily Press newspaper. “This does not necessarily mean, however, that the decision is wrong.”

Current laws mean that Redrow Plc, the U.K.’s smallest homebuilder by market value, spends more on planning fees than on bricks, according the company’s chairman, Steve Morgan.

A total of 117 U.K.-based property companies and builders went into administration in the three months through September, up from 105 a year earlier, Deloitte LLP said on Oct. 5.


The campaigners “frequently use concern for the environment as a smokescreen, when their real concern is to protect their own housing wealth at the expense of young people,” Morgan said in a speech to the House Builders Federation conference in London this week.

In 2007, Great Ryburgh’s post office, pub and shop faced closure, threatening the village’s future. In response, Andrew Purdy encouraged 124 residents to buy shares in a new store, of which he is now the managing director.

“The shop is owned by the village, it is run by the village,” Purdy, a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army who retired in July, said in an interview as he walked through the store. “The new planning guidance is riding roughshod over everything that we’re doing.”

‘Hands Off’

The villagers have the support of the Daily Telegraph, which backed Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party during last year’s general election. The newspaper began its “Hands Off Our Land” campaign on Sept. 1.

The National Trust, a conservation group, used an aerial picture of Los Angeles on its website to show that the reforms may lead to unchecked urban growth. The image was justified because the reforms give priority to economic development over environment and social needs, said Fiona Reynolds, director- general at the organization.

“If we didn’t have the planning system we now have, we would certainly have seen the urban sprawl that surrounds Los Angeles,” Reynolds said by telephone on Sept. 29. “There was a shift in tone. We have had to send a very clear signal of unhappiness with it.”

Brown-Field Sites

The National Trust is pushing for the government’s draft law to be revised to say that developers should first build on previously developed land, known as brown-field sites.

Westfield Group, the world’s largest owner of shopping centers, constructed its 1.45 billion-pound ($2.2 billion) Stratford City Mall on a brown-field site in east London, said Duncan Bower, its director of development and asset management.

“There’s been a lot of scaremongering,” Bower said. “This isn’t concreting over the green belt. The government and civil servants are looking at strengthening the brown-field- first policy. If that’s the case, we’d welcome that.”

Great Ryburgh straddles a country road and is inaccessible by public transport. Its tree-spotted street has only one junction, used for the Crisp Malting plant.

Opposite a cluster of copper-color cylinders that tower above some homes and flavor the air with the smell of malt is a sign that says “Yes to the Lorry Park.” It’s outnumbered by the “For Sale” signs outside some houses.

“There’s a lot of people considering moving,” said Champion, who runs his own company advising clients on heritage laws. “And I would include myself. This has gone too far.”

--Editors: Rodney Jefferson, Andrew Blackman.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Spillane in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew Blackman at

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