It is perhaps hardly surprising that we allotmenteers are regular readers of ‘The Countryman’, a monthly magazine dedicated to the celebration of Britain’s countryside. I confess that we do little for its circulation since Alan’s copy is passed from one codger to another. But we delight in so many articles about our rural heritage, and the folk that once inhabited it. Sadly, the August edition is doing more warning than celebrating.
In his regular feature ‘Country Diary’, Paul Jackson expresses great concern that England’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) are under threat as never before. They are, it seems, under seige from damaging and inappropriate developments at a time when the Government’s policy risks further weakening the protection of our countryside. So worried is the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) that it has published a map showing many of the threats to some of England’s most treasured landscapes and is fighting proposals that would blight valued areas.
Shaun Spiers, CPRE chief executive says ; “CPRE branches across the ocuntry are on the frontline of the battle to protect our countryside, but the range of threats they face is frightening. Left unchallenged these proposed developments will have a lasting and detrimental effect on these areas. If the planning system no longer protects AONBs – iconic landscapes such as Dedham Vale, the Forest of Bowland, the Cornwall coast and many others – it should be strengthened. However, we are deeply concerned that far from strengthening the planning system, the Goivernment is proposing to make “yes” the default answer to development proposals”.
So preoccupied have most of us been with Murdoch, the economy and the like that few had even noticed that the coalition is quietly subjecting the planning system to its biggest shake-up for over sixty years. The National Planning Framework is, according to conservationalists, a recipe for an irreversible environmental disaster and a financial bonanza for developers. At first glance it appears good news for all those who have suffered huge frustration at the hands of town hall planning departments for rules and regulations have been slashed. But when you focus in one change hits more than any other. There will in future be a new presumption in favour of building. In other words from here on the onus will be placed on objectors alone. Forget green belts, environmental issues and the like, if a developer proposes any sort of programme it happens unless someone can prove real resulting problems. And Inspectors hearing objections must say yes unless there are overwhelming factors against.
The front line of this new approach will be our countryside. The current target requiring most new homes (to cope with immigration) to be built on brownfield land (waste ground, old factories and the like) is abolished. In 2009, 80 per cent of all new homes were on brownfield sites, now green belt areas are up for grabs. A developer’s paradise dawns!
The minister in charge of the reforms is Greg Clark and he has made his position clear. “The idea that every blade of grass outside our cities is sacrosanct, and that urban spaces should be preserved betrays a degree of inhumanity to poeple who may not live in the countryside” he says. In other words the plan is to spread developments right across areas we all treasure, whether we live in cities, towns or villages.
Of course it is not just organisations such as CPRE that are taking up arms. As with the fiasco on Forests, the most vocal opposition will come from the Tory heartlands. An early example is provided in north Essex. Not long before the election Grant Shapps, the then shadow housing minister, visited the villages of Elsenham and Henham. The gentle landscape familiar to viewers of the BBC’s ‘Lovejoy’ was threatened by plans of the Labour government to build 5000 houses there. No lover of half-timbered houses and antique shops, Gordon Brown was hellbent on creating a large “eco-town”. Mr Shapps arrived to reassure local people that a Conservative government would not allow such vandalism to take place. Already the then defeated developers (there was a large Conservative sponsored protest) are sounding perky. Stephen Biart, the land director of the developer Fairfield says that ; “I am really encouraged by the new policy. The possibility of sustainable development is here”. He could have added “and lots of glorious profit”.
The now defunct protest groups are reforming. Mr Baker, of ‘Save our Villages’ says ; “We’re a Tory area here, but when people realise what this government has done there will be real anger”. A similar story applies right across the country as those determined to protect our heritage prepare to fight. Tory will fight Tory and blood will flow.
Not surprisingly, the developers are moving quickly in many areas. In Cambridgeshire plans for 4,800 houses on greenfield land at Northstowe are near completion. In fact plans emerging nationwide already total 135,000 houses and that is merely the tip of a very large iceberg. And developments within cities and towns will also mushroom. The new plan rules that planners should not attempt to impose “architectural styles or tastes”. Chester, Bath and York are but some of those already expressing fears!
So why is a predominantly Conservative government embarking on the rape of Britains heritage. The prime motive is to promote economic growth, the secondary one to give free rein to their powerful friends in the development and finance sectors. But there is a huge political risk in that the communities most likely to rebel are of their own kind. And remember that they were promised localism, the power to make planning decisions in their own backyards.
But we should all be worried. Our green and pleasant land is heading for a concrete jungle!
ANSWERS TO YESTERDAY’S WEEKEND QUIZ; 1. Whiskey 2. Amanda Barrie 3. The Pope 4. Tuberculosis 5. On the bridge 6. Cabaret 7. JD Fortune 8. Fennel 9. Deep Purple 10. Monkey Bread