ResPublica National Trust The Woodland Trust

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Response to the 2017 Party Manifestos

19 May 2017

With all three major party manifestos (Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Conservative) released this week, we now know what the parties have planned on the key election issues.

From our perspective, there are elements to be welcomed in each party’s plans – but we are disappointed that none makes the critically important case which is at the heart of our campaign: a recognition that improving an area’s beauty and visual appeal is a critical part of building healthier, more prosperous communities, and that too many people find themselves shut out from the opportunity to live in an area whose appearance adds value to their lives.

The Labour manifesto notes that “home is at the heart of all our lives” – a promising recognition of the foundational importance of the place where you live, the theme which is central to our campaign. Its primary focus however is on supply and affordability; while these are crucial questions which the next Government must address, they are too low a bar to set in terms of the aspirations for housing policy over the next Parliament without wider consideration of how communities will be able to shape the evolution of their locality, including its appearance. We hope the proposed Department for Housing, tasked with improving the affordability, quality and numbers of houses, will consider how development contributes to the beauty of an area as part of its remit.

The pledge to “properly resource and bolster planning authorities with fuller powers to put people and communities at the heart of planning” is also to be welcomed. Cuts to local planning departments since 2010 have reduced the opportunity for a coherent local vision for the future of areas to be set out and implemented, giving even greater significance to neighbourhood planning and making the question of its uneven uptake across the country – as we have identified – even more concerning. We also welcome the promise to make utility companies responsible for returning roads to a good state of repair when carrying out maintenance work; we have previously recommended this be accomplished by means of giving local authorities the power to charge a levy on such companies to pay for this repair work and compensatory public realm improvements.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto gives focus to the natural environment and rural landscapes, as well as greenery in cities, noting that “the countryside, wildlife and urban green spaces are critical to health, wellbeing and a sense of community”. The party’s pledge to move away from direct agricultural subsidy in withdrawing from the Common Agricultural Policy, focusing instead on the public benefits from land management, is to be welcomed – though again the benefits of creating beauty are only hinted at rather than stated as an explicit goal, including in their pledge to create “national nature parks” to protect around one million acres of accessible green space valued by local communities. The manifesto does nod to the importance of community participation in determining the future of their area in its pledge to introduce a “community right of appeal” where planning decisions contravene a made local plan; for full effect, this should also include neighbourhood plans.

The Conservative manifesto is the most open in explicitly embracing the importance of attractive and well-maintained places, setting out the party’s aspiration that “our towns and cities should be healthy, well-designed and well-tended places”. This ambition goes so far as to include measures to reduce litter – the factor which our research suggests people feel contributes most to reducing an area’s beauty. It acknowledges that as a nation “we have not provided the infrastructure, parks, quality of space and design that … makes communities prosperous and sustainable” and that “the result is felt by many ordinary, working families”. We welcome this admission, and the recognition that access to well-designed and endowed places is restricted to those on higher incomes.

To address this situation, the manifesto promises that a Conservative Government would “encourage the very best practice in the design of buildings and public spaces”; we hope that this reflects the need for local people’s input in determining what design is best-suited to their area, as per the suggestion in the recent Housing White Paper that all local and neighbourhood plans should establish design guidelines as standard. We applaud the proposal for a review into the design of government buildings, though we caution against centralised over-prescriptiveness and a lack of space for local input. Finally, we also welcome the decision to repeat the pledge to leave the environment in a better state than when entering office, and call for the promised 25 Year Environment Plan to be published as a matter of urgency, and with the appropriate focus on preserving and enhancing natural beauty, if the Government is re-elected.

In conclusion, each party’s manifesto provides some hope that the next Government will back beauty in one form or another, yet none can be considered sufficiently comprehensive in its ambition to declare the fight for beauty a done deal. We call on those candidates who are returned to Westminster on June 8th to make the case for beauty in public policy over the next Parliament, including with our ten suggestions for the next Government.