David Cameron has overseen the destruction of the countryside and reneged on his election promises to protect it, according to the outgoing chairman of the National Trust, Sir Simon Jenkins, who has called for the introduction of a landmark listing system to save Britain’s rural landscape.
Jenkins, who stepped down yesterday after six years in the role, believes that the coalition has been so hostile to Britain’s countryside that a new kind of conservation is needed to prevent more green spaces from being lost or blighted by developments such as wind turbines and fracking. His proposed system would resemble the one that protects important buildings and houses.
He referred to an interview the prime minister gave to BBC1’s Countryfile in 2012. “He pledged there that he would no more put the countryside at risk than his own family,” said Jenkins. “But he has, in that he has allowed his chancellor, George Osborne, and Eric Pickles, as local government and communities secretary, to ruin the countryside. We have been witnessing the disenfranchisement of rural Britain.”
Although his role as chairman is meant to have been non-party political, Jenkins believes that the Conservatives and their partners, the Liberal Democrats, have torn up previous governments’ countryside planning policies.
“Under the last Labour government, the presumption was that you built on brownfield first, and then only possibly green,” he said.
Now, Jenkins believes, developers, builders and organisations such as the Home Builders Federation have successfully lobbied for new houses to be built in the countryside. “They have a friend in Osborne, while until recently they had also a planning minister, Nick Boles, who was very sympathetic,” he said. “It was Boles who was effectively a recruiting officer for Ukip, making many voters turn to that party because it is more understanding about protecting the countryside.”
Jenkins, who is also a former deputy chairman of English Heritage, argues that Britain has a better record of protecting urban environments than rural ones. “We have looked after our cities very well for decades,” he said. “We are very good at preserving architecture. But we are now really bad at protecting the countryside and landscapes. That’s why I have been thinking about a grade system.”
Under his scheme, national parks would be awarded grade 1, areas of outstanding natural beauty would receive grade 2; agricultural land of scenic significance would be graded 3; and green belt, areas of local scenic value, other green land and land on which there is no objection to building would be graded 4-7 respectively. “It could be designated by the department for environment, but you would also need inspectors,” he said.
Over the past year, the trust has received about 400 calls from people in towns and villages objecting to what they consider unsightly and unnecessary applications for developments on their outskirts.
“Yet five years ago we used to get a handful annually,” said Jenkins. “This guerrilla warfare between developers and the countryside must be stopped.”
Jenkins, who has written books on both the countryside and historic buildings, says it makes sense to build more homes in so-called urban deserts, particularly towns and cities with large areas once occupied by industrial and commercial sites. He points to swathes of the Midlands and the north with undeveloped brownfield acres. Public facilities, such as schools and hospitals, are often near such sites.
As chairman, Jenkins steered the National Trust towards a greater concern for the countryside. He argued that this was what most of its 4m members wanted and that it also tallied with the principles of the organisation’s founders, who wanted ordinary people to be able to visit the protected countryside.
“We are more identified now with the countryside, the gardens of our properties and activities at them than the stately homes themselves,” said Jenkins.
He cited Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, which receives more than 1m visitors a year, and added: “More [people] say they go there for some of the activities and events like their art exhibitions.” Other National Trust properties have playgrounds where parents can leave their children, attended, while they visit the house.
Jenkins conceded that this greater emphasis on families (a third of the trust’s members are now families) has also met criticism. “Older members are irritated, while some accuse us of being too primary-school-like. But most members have wanted us to be more welcoming to children.”
Others have alleged that the trust’s homes have become “Disneyfied”, featuring staff in costume and historical re- enactments. Jenkins counters that too many homes used to be daunting and expected too much historical knowledge from their visitors.
He also defended the decision to hold a weekend for trust members at the studios of the Channel 5 show Big Brother in Elstree, Hertfordshire, arguing the trust likes to let members access unusual places.
“You never know, but in years to come we might acquire it as an example of an iconic early 21st-century building,” he said.
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