Debate Magazine

Saving the Fields of Old England

Posted on the 26 June 2014 by Markwadsworth @Mark_Wadsworth

Andrew Motion in the Guardian
Today is the centenary of Laurie Lee's birth and a fitting moment to reflect on Cider with Rosie's evocation of an England "which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years' life". Today, many feel the gigantic upheaval he witnessed is being followed by another, which is producing the biggest changes to the countryside within our living memories.

It is a defining moment, crystallised by a threat that faces Lee's countryside. Even as I write this, government planning inspectors are deciding whether to allow developers to build a housing estate in the green fields of the Slad Valley where the book was set. This is despite the local council's rejection of the plans. Similar things are happening all over the country.
That's precisely why the government have to intervene. Because "similar things" means no-one builds housing. It's a tragedy of the commons problem.
David Cameron recently visited the valley and said he understood the book's "wonderful links with this very special part of the world". But on the subject of the proposed development, the prime minister observed: "New houses have to be built so we have to make choices about where they will go."

He is right: there is a choice. We need to build more homes, but our politicians are failing to show the vision and ambition of their predecessors – the men and women who acted to protect our commons, national parks, green belts and footpaths.
Because their predecessors weren't faced with development hitting the problem of green belts. Oxford has pretty much expanded to the edge of its greenbelt. It's why Mini are recruiting in Swindon for staff to commute to Cowley (it would make more sense to move the Mini plant to Swindon, but that's another story).
I understand that MPs are inevitably pulled towards the immediate wishes of voters concerned about economic growth. But politicians have always been beset by day-to-day challenges, not least the postwar governments, which faced huge problems of reconstruction but still managed to introduce protection for landscapes, nature and heritage.
That's just hilarious. Post-war planning almost entirely ignored heritage and nature. There's all sorts of buildings from the 1960s and 1970s that got thrown up with almost no consideration of how they fitted into the existing aesthetic. Old buildings were knocked down to make way for a new golden era of Le Corbusier influenced eyesores (some of which are now protected, you monsters).
We need to recapture some of that inclusive, progressive and enlightened thinking. It's not an alternative to sound economic and social policy; rather, it can be the foundation of such things.

Our democratic, locally led planning system was part of the great postwar settlement for the countryside – together with national parks and green belts – but it has been steadily eroded by recent governments. To address the problems the country faces, we will need more land-use planning, not less.
Bollocks. It's been steadily eroded by homeownerism. When people were pro- building houses, you could leave it up to local democracy. If you travel to some of the large villages that I knew as a boy, you can look at the architectural styles and see that there was a massive amount of building from the 60s to the 80s, followed by the odd tiny development since. More land-use planning would make things even worse.
There are enough brownfield sites in England to accommodate 1.5m homes close to jobs, services and infrastructure. We must make these homes affordable, without compromising on quality.

Developing disused sites will both improve our towns and cities, and help us safeguard the countryside. This matters. Contact with the natural world is not just a pleasure, it's a necessity, and a part of what makes us who we are.
Governments are already in favour of this. This is current policy, started by Prescott. Stop pretending that this isn't current policy.
Englishness is tricky to define, not least because it tends to shun large gestures and rhetorical flourishes. But traditional attitudes, such as pride in our countryside, exist in a wonderful, big melting pot of Englishness, together with our pride in absorbing new cultures and our refusal to make Englishness an issue of race or birthplace.

Satish Kumar, Benjamin Zephaniah, Marina Lewycka and Anish Kapoor have all signed the Campaign to Protect Rural England's "save our countryside" charter. But too many politicians lack the courage to stand up for the countryside. That is a shame.
Brown people like the countryside, too. Who knew?
As we approach the general election next May, we should also give thought to the big, over-arching questions. How do we want to live? What sort of country do we want to live in? We should be thinking of houses as homes not investments, of other marks of national progress than mere economic growth, and of the importance to everyone's life of beauty and wellbeing.
Indeed. So, why is the CPRE against building, when this would help to destroy investments and give more people homes? Why is it in favour of sticking VAT on building which will kill off new builds and only having LVT on unused sites? If you want to reduce building, you'd introduce LVT which would encourage people to move away from the south of England and to cheaper bits of the country where there's plenty of land.

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