The developer-led planning system

One of my jobs at CPRE is to go round England cheering up our branches and regional groups. I am not sure I ever really succeed, but they often succeed in depressing me.

This is not, I hasten to say, because they are all miserabilists or because we are losing every battle. I always come away proud that CPRE has so many talented and dedicated people, and full of admiration for what they achieve with minute resources. CPRE saves countryside that would otherwise be lost and improves the quality of many developments. But our local volunteers are finding the going tough, and they are not shy about saying so.

Yesterday I gave my usual message to the CPRE South West meeting in Taunton: the Government is listening, our messages are getting through, we hope we can persuade it to change course. Very few people any longer think that weakening the planning system and releasing more land is the way to solve the housing crisis: that seven year experiment is nearing its end. Indeed, no one seriously thinks the private sector will build houses on the scale the country needs: the 37 year experiment of leaving housing to the private sector has spectacularly failed.

I genuinely think we may be at a moment for radical new thinking about housing – or perhaps a variant of old thinking, harking back to the years when Conservative governments prided themselves both on building houses and looking after the countryside.

For now, though, at a local level CPRE branches have to grapple with a system of mind-blowing, spirit sapping complexity and opaqueness, one that seems almost designed to discourage civil society from having its say. Continue reading ‘The developer-led planning system’

Visiting Alconbury Weald, Huntingdon

A couple of weeks ago I went on a fascinating visit to Alconbury Weald, a large and impressive Urban and Civic development on an ex-USAF airfield outside Huntingdon.

The development is supported by CPRE Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. I only really got a sense of its scale on a drive round the site. Not only is it the largest business park in the country by some distance; there are also plans for 5,000 new homes, three primary schools and a secondary school. There is huge investment in landscaping, heritage assets are being preserved (the heritage in this case is mostly of the Cold War), and a design code is in place.

In addition to 1100 acres of brownfield land occupied by the old airbase, 330 acres of farmland have been purchased, linking the development to the town of Huntingdon. Some of this land will be developed, the rest will act as a green corridor between the new settlement and the town. Alconbury Weald will not have a major retail centre; the intention is to support Huntingdon’s struggling town centre.

You can read about the development here and here. The visit prompted four thoughts in particular: developers can win consent for good developments, but they have to work for it; we focus on housing, but it is often the lack of infrastructure that stops housing getting built; we talk about the housing crisis (and the emergency of climate change) but then carry on pretty much as usual; the one crisis response is to weaken the planning system, in the mistaken belief that this will significantly boost house building.    Continue reading ‘Visiting Alconbury Weald, Huntingdon’

A fair deal for our farmers

First published in Shooting Times, 31st August 2016

Post-Brexit politics looks set to be dominated by years of hard, tedious trade negotiations and arguments over what to do with over 40 years of EU-inspired legislation. The business of ‘getting back control’ may be pretty dull.

But one area of policy enthuses both sides in the referendum campaign: forging national agricultural policies to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Britain’s countryside has been shaped by farming, and farming since the Second World War has been largely shaped by public policy. UK farmers currently receive just over £3 billion a year in financial support, but both the overall sum and how it is spent are largely determined in Brussels. Now we must decide how, and how much, to support British farmers.

Continue reading ‘A fair deal for our farmers’

Have we got the bottle? The case for deposits on drinks containers

Bottle deposits are in the news. CPRE’s President spoke up for them in last week’s Mail on Sunday; the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland has been running a tremendous campaign for a Scottish deposit scheme, Have you got the bottle?; and the  anniversary of the bag charge has shown that nudging people towards doing the right thing really does work.

Here is my column for September’s Countryman magazine, available in all good newsagents.

I often write quite gloomy columns for the Countryman, so it is good to be able to record an unequivocal success. It is a year since major retailers in England were required to charge 5p for single use plastic carrier bags and in that time six billion fewer bags have been issued. Yes, six billion, an 85% reduction.

This has had a big impact on litter and pollution (plastic bags take hundreds of years to degrade); it has saved wildlife (the RSPCA used to receive 7,000 litter-related calls a year); and it has raised some £29 million for ‘good causes’ (though more of this money should go towards tackling our national litter problem). Continue reading ‘Have we got the bottle? The case for deposits on drinks containers’

The new government: Defra and Beis

This is the second of two blogs, mainly for CPRE members, on the composition of the new government. The first can be found here.

Department for Food, Environment & Rural Affairs (Defra

The appointment of Elizabeth Truss as Environment Secretary in 2014 was greeted with little enthusiasm by environmentalists. She did not enter the role as a committed environmentalist, but she was willing to engage – for instance, hosting a CPRE seminar on landscape – and she pushed forward the 25 year plan for nature with conviction. Liz Truss also deserves thanks for approving the extension of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks. I wish her well in her new role as Lord Chancellor.

If Liz Truss’s appointment was coolly received, Andrea Leadsom’s has been greeted by some with outright hostility. Continue reading ‘The new government: Defra and Beis’

The new government: Treasury and CLG

A number of CPRE members have asked what we should make of the new Government. What follows is largely for them.

It is rather more hopeful than some commentaries from environmentalists. No government will do everything campaigners want – governments cannot achieve what they want, let alone satisfying everyone else. But Ministers, learning on the job, can confound expectations.

I gave initial thoughts on Theresa May as Prime Minister in an earlier blog.

The Treasury

George Osborne has been a dominant figure in government over the past six years. He had a big impact on national life, and many achievements. But it is unlikely he will be missed by conservationists. For all his undoubted qualities, he had a tin ear when it came to listening to the environmental concerns or people worried about development. He interfered constantly in the planning system, but made no effort to understand it. Continue reading ‘The new government: Treasury and CLG’

Farming after Brexit: reasons to be hopeful

Whatever one thinks of the decision to leave the European Union, in one respect at least, it presents a great opportunity.

For 30 years during and after the war, the purpose of UK agricultural policy was to increase food production. Since 1973, farming policy has largely been decided in Brussels. Now we have the chance to fashion our own farming and land management policy for the twenty-first century.

England’s countryside is in large measure the product of farming. Those who manage the land should be rewarded not only for the crops they sell, but also for ‘public goods’ such as flood management, carbon capture, promoting wildlife and, yes, maintaining and enriching beautiful landscapes.

But farmers will soon be competing for limited funds with steel workers, the NHS and other causes. Continue reading ‘Farming after Brexit: reasons to be hopeful’


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