Concreting over the soul of England
Credit: By Anthony Horowitz | Daily Mail | www.dailymail.co.uk 6 September 2012 ~~
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There is no doubt that we need houses to be built in Britain. People are living much longer. Divorce is more prevalent, meaning that families are splitting into two homes where once one would do.
We have also welcomed very large numbers of immigrants to what was already a fairly crowded island. They all have to live somewhere.
This need for homes explains why the Government raised the prospect at the weekend that developers could be allowed to build on green belt land.
David Cameron also insisted this week that a key part of an economic recovery is ‘building the houses our people need’.
His cry for more homes comes in the same zealous spirit that ministers have adopted when giving the nod to huge wind farms that are springing up on hillsides across the country – all in the name of future prosperity and sustainable development.
The truth, though, is that wind farms are hideous. They cause misery to anyone living near them and they have a habit of shredding migrating birds.
Of course, it would be a very foolish person who rejected energy that was efficient, non-polluting and cheap.
But the fact that there’s too much wind or not enough wind, and that these wind farms never actually appear to work, seems completely irrelevant to the global warming prophets.
But it is not just homes and wind turbines. Right now, there are all sorts of development projects taking shape all over Britain – and very much changing Britain’s landscape.
From the waste incinerator at Chieveley in West Berkshire to the Government’s very own High Speed 2 train link – which will slice up to half an hour off the journey between Birmingham and London at the same time as it slices through large swathes of Buckinghamshire – our green and pleasant land is being torn up in the name of development.
It does seem a little odd that it’s a Conservative-led government that is leading this assault on the countryside. I’d always thought it was Labour, with its hatred of country and fox-hunting types, who was the natural enemy.
But let’s be honest. No government these days has a view that goes more than a mile or two outside Westminster.
The Government’s latest attack is on the green belt, with ministers promising changes to planning laws to allow for building on it in certain areas in an attempt to stimulate our sluggish economy.
Nothing, however, is quite as simple as it seems.
For not only could these reforms lead to the destruction of the British countryside, they may be neither necessary nor economically competent. It has been pointed out, for example, that there are some 750,000 homes in the UK lying empty – and 66,000 hectares of land which already have planning permission.
Shaun Spiers, of the Campaign To Protect Rural England, claims that the new planning laws will lead only ‘to a lot more houses in the wrong place’, while Malcolm Sharp, president of the Planning Officers Society, has called the new plans unhelpful and misjudged.
It might also be worth remembering that once permission has been given to turn a piece of greenfield land into housing, its cash value multiplies by a factor of ten. Might pushy developers be more interested in lining their pockets than acquiescing to the wishes of the local community? It is a possibility.
Of course, local people mount protests – but how quickly they are dismissed as ‘Nimbys’ (Not In My Back Yard).
It often strikes me that it was an evil genius who coined the word Nimby and used it as an insult.
But really, shouldn’t we all be Nimbys, looking after not just our own interests but those of our neighbours and local community? If we don’t do it, who will? Politicians? Hardly.
Both Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have spoken out against Nimbys – which is also odd, because Osborne has backed residents protesting against plans to build hundreds of new homes at Wilmslow in Cheshire, which is in his constituency.
I don’t think that the Chancellor is a sneering and cold-blooded hypocrite, and was personally shocked when he was booed this week at the Paralympics. But he does increasingly seem to be not just at odds with the nation but somehow representative of the shadow falling over it.
The real problem in debating the future of the countryside – and this troubles me deeply – is that the argument may have already been lost.
Over the past 25 years, numbers of hedgehogs and house sparrows have halved. According to think tank Policy Exchange, three quarters of butterfly species are in decline. Farmland bird numbers have fallen by four fifths.
This article should have come with a bucolic description of a walk through Suffolk, something I do frequently and which I love. It should be accompanied by a photograph of a cottage and a river, preferably with daffodils.
The trouble is, that article and those images have been printed a hundred times. And what do they prove? Often, that the writer is middle-aged, middle class, and will be decried as out-of-touch with the new forward-looking Britain that the Government wants to embrace.
George Osborne says that Britain must be more like China, that ‘this country, in the current economic environment, cannot afford to wait years for development’. He wants us to press on, unhindered by planning regulations.
When a British minister compares his country unfavourably with China, you know you’re in trouble. But sadly it’s the way we’re going.
My sons have grown up with the new wind turbines and see absolutely nothing wrong with them. They think they’re attractive.
If you look at city children, with their heads buried in computer games and mobile phones, do you really believe that many of them are going to have Wordsworth-style palpitations at the sight of a haystack at sunset?
On one level, why should they? With the economic mess they’re inheriting, and a staggering 11 million young people currently out of work, the last thing they can afford is sentimentality.
In a similar vein, factory farms may have done as much damage to the countryside as any new incinerator plant – but who is going to let that stand in the way of the next cheap meal?
But this is why I watch the attack on planning laws with a sense of despondency mixed with impotence. We all know that once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Once the concrete has been laid, the new houses built, the fields and woodlands laid bare, there will be no going back, that the short-term policies of today’s government will be with us for generations.
What is harder, is to define exactly what it is we will have lost and why it was so valuable in the first place.
I have been re-reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and came to a chapter in which the heroine, Fanny Price, visits the countryside.
Of course, many of our greatest writers and poets have been inspired by rural England, and have helped to define its essence and the way it touches our national soul.
But Austen’s words seemed particularly apposite. Here’s harmony. Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind and what poetry can only attempt to describe! Here’s what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture!
‘When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.’
That is what David Cameron and his ministers seem to be forgetting.
As they set out to cure the body of the country, they risk destroying its soul. And that’s not about recovery. That’s a sort of living death.
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