Can we build beautiful roads? And should we build them at all?

A record of John Hayes’s recent speech to CPRE and the Campaign for Better Transport on ‘making roads beautiful’ is now on Storify. Here is my column on the speech, which will appear in the next issue of the Countryman.

Politicians do not usually talk about beauty. It is considered effete. But John Hayes, the Roads Minister, has no such qualms. In a previous job he waged war on wind turbines on the grounds that they are “simply ugly”. And he believes that “a civilisation is largely defined by what it builds,” a thought that should worry us.

So I was delighted when John Hayes told CPRE he wanted to give a speech on how to build beautiful roads. It is not every year – not every decade – that a politician asks us to host a speech on beauty. But beautiful roads? Continue reading ‘Can we build beautiful roads? And should we build them at all?’

‘The countryside’ – and the places we care about

Here is my column from the latest issue of the Countryman, available from all good newsagents.

When we talk of treasuring ‘the countryside’, we are generally thinking of particular places – places that have a significance in our lives, or special literary or historical associations.  Places, said G.M. Trevelyan, “have an interest or a beauty of association, as well as an absolute or aesthetic beauty”. He was referring to St. John’s College, Oxford, a home of the Royalist Court in the Civil War – “not mere stone and mortar, tastefully compiled, but an appropriate and mournful witness between those who see it now and those by whom it was once seen”. (From Clio, A Muse p. 26.)

A 70 home development would arouse opposition in any hamlet of 28 houses, but when that hamlet is Lower Bockhampton, Thomas Hardy’s Mellstock, the opposition wins international support. Adding 800 homes to any attractive Somerset village would be controversial – but when that village is T. Eliot’s East Coker (“In my beginning is my end…”) the fight has extra resonance. And anyone who has not had a sense of beauty bypass would want to protect the Slad Valley in the Cotswolds, but its association with Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie makes it extra special.

A wonderful new book, Literature and Landscape in East Devon by Peter Naysmith celebrates places and landscapes loved and immortalised by Sir Walter Raleigh, Jane Austen, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Beatrix Potter, John Betjeman and others (the link with Ottery St. Catchpole in the Harry Potter books is speculative but persuasive). Continue reading ‘‘The countryside’ – and the places we care about’

Catkins are out, committees are in: the Oxford Junior Dictionary

A stellar group of authors, including CPRE’s President, Sir Andrew Motion, have written a letter to the Oxford University Press protesting about the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s axing of words relating to the natural world. It has replaced them with words “associated with the increasingly interior, solitary childhoods of today”.

This is an old story, but a good cause. There is much more on the issue on Laurence Rose’s blog, Here is the Countryman column I wrote about it in January 2009. And just to be fair to the OUP, it gets it right with the wonderful Save Pudding Wood! in the Biff and Chip series.

I have just caught up with the furore that broke out shortly before Christmas over the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary.  This is an old story, but bear with me.  The book itself was published in 2007 and provoked no public excitement until a seven year old schoolboy in County Down sat down to do his homework and could not find definitions for the words ‘moss’ and ‘fern’.

His mother then compared six editions of the dictionary since the 1970s and found that words relating to religion, history and nature had been stripped out and replaced by newer words to do with the internet and celebrity.

The loss of sin and the devil caused some controversy, but it is probably nature and countryside words that have suffered most.

So, out go acorn, adder, ash, beech, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bray, bridle, brook, bullock, buttercup…  Continue reading ‘Catkins are out, committees are in: the Oxford Junior Dictionary’

Stop caricaturing CPRE as a crude anti-development lobby: a response to Martin Wolf

Friday’s Financial Times had an article on housing by its chief economics correspondent, Martin Wolf. I have a great, but unrequited admiration for Martin Wolf. He has a good record on climate change and I agree with much of what he says on housing, particularly that we should look seriously at property taxation, and that the government should build more houses or subsidise others to build them.

But I do not agree with his apparent belief that if more greenfield land is released, housing supply will significantly increase, and I particularly object to the suggestion that CPRE is part of ‘a corrupt arrangement whose result is to benefit the haves at the expense of the have-nots’.

CPRE has consistently argued that housing should not be seen principally as an investment – see, for instance, our Vision for the countryside in 2026 – and we acknowledge that long-term undersupply is one reason, though not the only reason, for rising house prices. As I wrote in October 2013, also in a letter to the FT in response to Martin Wolf, I wrote: ‘We need a sensible conversation about how the country can break its addiction to high property prices, but throwing insults at those who want to build more houses while minimising the loss of countryside is not a good place to start.   

My response to Martin Wolf’s article, printed in today’s FT, is below.   Continue reading ‘Stop caricaturing CPRE as a crude anti-development lobby: a response to Martin Wolf’

The roads programme: saloon bar policy-making

The Government has been boasting for some time that it is committed to the largest road building programme for fifty years. Now it has announced how it intends to spend £15 billion on roads by the end of the decade. There is £100 million to improve cycling provision and to ‘cycle-proof’ new roads, and £300 million for an environmental fund to reduce the carbon, noise and landscape impacts of the roads network, and these funds are very welcome.

The trouble lies with plans for the remaining £14.6 billion. These include schemes that will damage National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and a tunnel under Stonehenge (in itself a good thing) that will fail to preserve the setting of the country’s most important World Heritage Site.

CPRE will be engaging with these proposals in detail. We have funded a roads campaigner for nine months and hope to do much more, working alongside the Campaign for Better Transport and other likeminded organisations. We will undoubtedly produce a good deal of detailed analysis, but it seems worth making a few points now. Continue reading ‘The roads programme: saloon bar policy-making’

From Wasted Space to Living Spaces: new CPRE report

Towards the end of last year, at a fringe meeting at Conservative Party conference, I made a bland point about the desirability of building on brownfield land rather than in the countryside. I said that there was enough brownfield land in England to build 1.5 million new homes, a figure taken from a CPRE report by Green Balance and based on the most recently available government figures.

I thought that figure was uncontroversial, but the then planning minister, Nick Boles disagreed vehemently – I never found out why – and earlier this year the Government quoted a potential figure of 200,000 new homes. There is a big gap between 200,000 and 1.5 million, so CPRE commissioned research from the University of the West of England (UWE) to try to establish a figure on which everyone can agree. Sometimes it is necessary for charities to do the Government’s work for it.

UWE’s report has now been published, co-authored with CPRE’s Paul Miner, and it estimates that there is at least enough suitable brownfield land in England to build 976,000 homes, including 405,000 on land with either outline or detailed planning permission. Continue reading ‘From Wasted Space to Living Spaces: new CPRE report’

A land use strategy for England?

My last blog was about Rebuilding Britain, by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson. The book is pretty despairing about the state of planning. There have been three major reforms of the planning system in the last 15 years, but little attempt to consider from first principles what we want to achieve.

‘Failure to agree on a planning system that achieves our desired goals’ was one of three failures of his time in government identified by Gus O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary, in a speech in May 2012.

‘Every time there is a recession, or even of a reduction in growth below trend,’ he said, ‘there is a call for more “structural reforms”. Top of the list is always the planning system. It is blamed for holding back growth and development. The problem is, in fact, a classic example of not being clear about the outcome that is desired. If it is to boost GDP, then the answer is simple: concrete over the South East. But of course that’s not what we want…’ Continue reading ‘A land use strategy for England?’


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