As if Middle England was not already angry enough with this Government, a new battle is commencing. After gay marriage, wind turbines and the London-Birmingham rail link through the Chilterns, comes the concreting of the English countryside.
Ministers insist that the country needs hundreds of thousands more houses, and that many of these must be built on rural greenfield sites. The Government has changed planning law, supposedly in the interests of economic growth, to impose ‘a presumption in favour of development’.
All over Britain, communities find themselves confronted with draconian demands from central Government to accept new housing – far in excess of anything local plans recognise as acceptable – which threatens to change their areas beyond recognition.
Nicholas Boles, the ruthless, fiercely ambitious Tory under-secretary in charge of planning, aspires to concrete an expanse of rural England twice the size of Greater London.
He considers himself to be fighting a crusade against selfish Nimbys, saying: ‘We cannot turn a blind eye while Margaret Thatcher’s dream of a property-owning democracy shrivels, and shrug our shoulders as home-ownership reverts to what it was in the 19th century – a privilege, the exclusive preserve of people with large incomes or wealthy parents’.
But Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, told this week’s Home Builders Federation conference in London that a new generation cannot assume an automatic right to affordable housing in the countryside, just because their parents live there.
He must be right about this. Young people struggling to afford to buy houses deserve warm sympathy.
But nobody can have an absolute right to a home in an expensive area.
My own parents lived in London’s Kensington 60 years ago, but I am not stupid enough to think that it should be among my own civil rights to follow them.
Nobody should be fooled by the propaganda of the sharks of the housing industry. If they get their way, the children of today’s villagers will live not in English countryside, but in an unbroken suburban housing estate across the Midlands and south of England.
This Government is bent on a massive housing programme, which it believes will generate economic growth. Ministers talk glibly of ‘getting the planners off society’s back’.
Yet these are weasel words: the very reason this overcrowded island still has so much countryside is because planning officers have laboured for decades to protect it.
Sir Andrew Motion, president of the Campaign to Preserve Rural England (CPRE) – a post I once held myself – has christened the new planning minister ‘Mr Concrete’ and, indeed, Boles is the sort of politician decent planners were created to fight on the beaches.
Half-truths and outright lies are told, to justify the Government’s bonfire of rules.
Firstly, ministers talk of housing demand from hapless young British families. This is real enough. But by far the most powerful driver of housing need is uncontrolled immigration.
We shall get nowhere useful until the Government can admit that Britain’s population is currently growing at an unsustainable rate.
It would be far more profitable – and popular – for ministers to address this huge problem than to devise plans for new house-building on a monstrous scale, which will make the south of England, in particular, a hellhole for our children’s generation to live in.
Nick Boles argues: ‘Contrary to media myth, we’ve got plenty of undistinguished, undeveloped land to spare’ – on green fields, he means.
Yet in truth, developers already have bulging land banks, and ever more brownfield sites are becoming available as Britain de-industrialises.
But they still clamour for greenfields, because they can make much bigger profits from them.
The Government’s stance on planning mocks David Cameron’s professed commitment to localism.
Again and again, regional or central government is intervening in order to overrule local communities’ considered views.
Next week, the Campaign to Protect Rural England will deliver a broadside, citing specific examples of Whitehall riding roughshod over local opinion. Calne in Wiltshire is one victim – facing the prospect of 350 new homes imposed by Whitehall.
In East Devon, the village of Feniton (with a population of nearly 2,000), lies in a district with severe flooding problems. Its primary and secondary schools are both overcapacity, its medical services stretched and local facilities poor.
The local council rejected an application by the developer Wainhomes to build 50 new houses there, on the grounds that it was contrary to their own development plan, and would occupy Grade 2 agricultural land.
But a year later, in September 2012, under the Government’s new policy, Wainhomes’ appeal was allowed.
Now, two further applications have been submitted in the area, for another 152 homes. Where, in this, are local opinion and expertise? Crushed under Nick Boles’s jackboots, that’s where.
The same has happened not far away in Ottery St Mary, where developer Redrow Homes’ application for 130 houses was rejected by the district council. Last November, Redrow won an appeal.
The local CPRE branch says: ‘These two appeal decisions have caused consternation among local residents. They seem to make a mockery of properly planned development for this area.’
The same story is being repeated up and down Britain.
The showpiece Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold is threatened with new housing development that will increase its population by a third, in defiance of the local authority and planners.
There is a similar situation at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire.
Says Sir Simon Jenkins: ‘This is becoming a war in the countryside, between people who live there and the authorities who are determined to impose large-scale development. Of course, everybody wants better houses, just as they want more roads. But need cannot be an absolute. The long-term interests of the country must be considered.
Jenkins says there is ‘no substitute for proper planning’, of the kind Britain has had for many decades.
He flatly rejects the claim of Nick Boles, that Britain’s economy and housing policy have been blighted by a ‘planning crisis’.
Boles himself is clever, plausible, charming – and willing to say, or do, almost anything to advance himself. So far, however, his principal achievement has been to rouse Middle England to a rage which I find myself sharing.
The man in Whitehall does not know what is best for the English countryside.
The Government’s crazy planning free-for-all rouses builders and unscrupulous local politicians into a cynical dash for the concrete-mixers.
This week, a Tory councillor in East Devon was exposed by a newspaper for boasting about his power to wave a wand for the developers – at a price.
The man, Graham Brown, said: ‘If I can’t get planning, nobody will … I don’t come cheap. If I turn a greenfield site into a housing estate and I’m earning the developer two or three million, then I ain’t doing it for peanuts’. There are, alas, others like Brown, together with an army of housebuilders thrilled at being granted licence to turn grass and cornfields into suburban semis.
If ministers knew about economics as well as politics, they would realise that the main constraints on house-building in Britain today are the state of the economy, and the clogging over-regulation of business, rather than a mythical shortage of development sites.
This government policy will achieve only three things, all of them bad. The relaxation of planning law will licence substantial house-building on greenfield sites. It lays bare Cameron’s doctrine of localism for the sham it is. And it causes natural Tory voters in blighted areas to ask why their own party is yet again trampling on everything they hold dear.
The new planning law is madness. Nick Boles, its standard-bearer, has picked a fight which will cost rural England dear, and deserves to cost his own party likewise.
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