What makes the countryside different?

Here is my column from the July issue of the Countryman, available by subscription or in all good newsagents.

“Sex and death! That’s what the countryside is really about.” So said Macdonald Hastings, broadcaster and editor, in the 1950s’ of Country Fair, ‘a monthly journal of the open air’.

His son, Sir Max Hastings, used to quote these words with relish as CPRE President, railing against the prettification of the countryside – townees settling in villages and complaining about the cockerel or the mud left by tractors; the district council’s sign by the village pond: ‘Warning. Risk of drowning.’ The countryside, Max was saying, is not the same as the town. We should treasure the differences.

Maintaining the physical difference between town and country was one of the things that brought CPRE into existence in 1926 – the idea that it should be obvious (as it is not in many countries) when one has left one and entered the other. The physical separation between town and country remains important, but what of other distinctions? Continue reading ‘What makes the countryside different?’

Time for city villages?

This is a slightly longer version of my column in June’s Countryman magazine.

The only way to protect the countryside is get our towns right. In particular, the rapid growth of London poses a threat to countryside across a wide area. London’s population fell from the war to the late 1980s, but is now back to its 1939 peak of 8.6 million, and rising.

Where are the extra people going to live? It is easy to say ‘on brownfield sites’, but the challenge is not just to find suitable land and develop it; it is to create places where people want to live. Anything that smacks of town cramming will backfire. We need to make cities good, green places in which to live.

One interesting idea now being touted by Labour peer Andrew Adonis is to rebuild some of London’s 3,500 council estates. In an IPPR pamphlet, City Villages: more homes, better communities he argues that we can replace tower blocks with traditional streets and, at the same time, achieve higher densities, a better social mix, more usable green space, better design and, all in all, better places. The idea is certainly worth exploring. Continue reading ‘Time for city villages?’

The Green Belt: good for cities

The Times has something of a campaign against the Green Belt. On Friday Ross Clarke’s Thunderer contained the usual arguments – London is choking, much of the Green Belt is poor quality land (‘grim monocultures of wheat and rapeseed’), green wedges would be better than the Green Belt (presumably because less effective). For the second time this month I succumbed to what Evelyn Waugh called ‘that senile itch to write to The Times’. My letter is in today’s paper and, in a slightly longer version, below.

Far from ‘strangling one of the world’s most economically vibrant cities’, the Green Belt around London supports its dynamism by concentrating wealth and investment within the city Continue reading ‘The Green Belt: good for cities’

We don’t need to destroy the Green Belt to solve the housing crisis

I have a letter on the Green Belt in the Times, a response to a piece by Tim Montgomerie criticising the Conservatives for their ‘appeasement of the nimby vote. A near-theological protection of green belt land explains why millions of young people can’t afford to buy a home. Planning restrictions remain the most impoverishing form of red tape in British public life.’

I admire Tim Montgomerie’s concern for people in need – he wrote a passionate article earlier this year about the humanitarian imperative to rescue economic migrants trying to get to Europe. But on UK housing, I wish he would move beyond the glib, unevidenced assumption that releasing more greenfield land must result in more housing. I wish, too, that he would try harder to understand why people – reasonable people – might object to new housing, and what might need to change to persuade them to accept it. Simply condemning them achieves nothing.

Here is the full version of my letter (the printed version is slightly shortened).

It is depressing that Tim Montgomerie peddles the line that we need to build on the Green Belt to resolve the housing crisis (It’s a myth that Tory modernisers won the day, May 14).

CPRE has established that there is enough suitable brownfield land for at least a million new homes, much of it in London and the South East. No one has contested these figures. The problem is not land, it is getting the houses built.

The major house builders have plenty of land with planning permission, but they dribble out supply. The small builders who once built two-thirds of private sector homes, now build less than a third and their market share is falling. And the state, which built over half the houses when we comfortably built over 200,000 homes every year, now builds very few. It spends on housing benefit, much of which goes to buy-to-let landlords, what it used to spend on building homes.

Meanwhile, for all the protestation of politicians that the Green Belt is safe, it is being it is being steadily eroded across England while brownfield sites go to waste. Tim Montgomerie should stop taking his lines from the developer-funded, anti-planning think-tanks. We need more houses, and some of them will inevitably go on greenfield sites. But we need to build with care. Simply dismissing those who care about the countryside as Nimbys is playground politics.

The new government ministers: reasons to be cheerful

In my last blog I stressed that Ministers are at least as important as manifesto pledges. So what should we make of the Ministers appointed by David Cameron this week? I think those who care about the countryside should be pretty pleased.

One of David Cameron’s strengths as prime minister is that he has tried to resist the temptation to reshuffle ministers just as they are mastering their briefs. Nevertheless, the last Parliament saw three environment secretaries (and a total change in junior ministers), three transport secretaries and four housing ministers. So it is good to see some consistency in the departments most closely relevant to CPRE’s work.

The new CLG (Department of Communities and Local Government) secretary of state, Greg Clark, introduced the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in the early years of the Coalition. Continue reading ‘The new government ministers: reasons to be cheerful’

The Conservative government and the countryside

What does a Conservative government mean for CPRE’s priorities? There were certainly some welcome promises in the manifesto, which reaffirmed the aim of ‘being the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than that in which we found it’, and declared boldly: ‘We will protect your countryside, Green Belt and urban environment.’

I have no doubt that David Cameron cares about the countryside. This comes across in his Q&A with CPRE’s President, Andrew Motion, where he describes himself as ‘a country boy at heart’. And I recall a fine impromptu speech he gave last summer at Burford School on the history and future of rural England – I doubt any of the other party leaders (a moving feast, I know) who could have spoken with such knowledge and passion.

The trouble, of course, is that as Prime Minister David Cameron has too often forgotten the countryside and left others do their worst. On the National Planning Policy Framework, for instance, he let the Chancellor call the shots. The experience of the last government suggests that manifesto promises are a poor guide to how things will pan out in reality. Continue reading ‘The Conservative government and the countryside’

FT letter: who is going to build the houses we need?

I love the Financial Times. It is a serious paper with some very good columnists. But on housing, the FT has bought wholesale the line of the developer-funded, anti-planning think-tanks that the way to increase output is to weaken the planning system and, in particular, the Green Belt. An FT leading article on Tuesday skilfully compressed almost every anti-planning misconception in two columns. My response is in today’s paper, and reproduced below. I am grateful to the paper for publishing it. In the coming weeks I intend to write a few blogs analysing in more detail some of the anti-conservation arguments that are becoming increasingly influential with ‘opinion formers’, if not (I am pleased to say) with the electorate.

Continue reading ‘FT letter: who is going to build the houses we need?’


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