Blanc, Boles and Motion: three speeches

I listened to three good speeches yesterday.

In the evening, I attended CPRE ambassador Raymond Blanc’s investiture as Chevalier in the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur and, as a bonus, in the Ordre du Mérite agricole.  The event took place at the residence of the French Ambassador and it was, as you can imagine, very French.

I arrived a little late, having tried unsuccessfully to get into the Russian Ambassador’s residence, so I missed the Ambassador’s 30 minute tribute to M. Blanc.   But I heard Raymond Blanc’s very witty and impassioned response – a little over the four minutes 52 seconds he had promised, but well worth listening to.

“I love food,” he said, “because it connects with everything, our land, our traditions, our society, our agriculture, our health, our environment.  It connects with ethics, sustainability and responsible luxury.  The food choices we are making today will influence very much the world we are going to have tomorrow.”  I particularly like the idea of ‘responsible luxury’ – though he went on to talk about hunger, and the charities he supports to combat poverty.

Champagne and canapés with lots of foodies was a treat after CPRE’s AGM.  This was stormy, as reported in today’s papers, but not in the way they suggest.  The real passion was expended in the morning during a debate on a procedural motion to amend CPRE’s Articles of Association – there is nothing like a good constitutional wrangle to get the blood pumping.  By the time Nick Boles spoke in the afternoon, the mood was comparatively sunny.

So while I yield to no one in my admiration for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, and their fine journalists, I think their descriptions of the event are a little lurid.  The Mail’s piece is headlined: “’A liar and a fool!’  Countryside campaigners maul planning minister”.  It says that CPRE members “repeatedly heckled Mr Boles and walked out as he told them those who resist house building will condemn rural villages to being ‘museum exhibits’”.  There was a bit of heckling in the question and answer session, and a couple of delegates who left early to catch trains may have grumbled on their way out, but the speech was listened to with respect.

And it is worth reading.  There is a lot in it with which CPRE agrees.  We want a living countryside, as well as one that is beautiful, and have been outspoken in calling for more rural affordable housing.  But I think those attending the AGM had two main problems with what Nick Boles said.

First, he has a simplistic view that if you simply release more land, house prices will fall; beautiful and affordable homes will be built; there will be little loss of amenity; and everyone will be happy.  We think things a bit more complex.  Second, while Mr Boles seems happy with the way things are going, CPRE’s activists (and the local councillors we talk to) see a very different picture on the ground – haphazard, poor quality development on green fields when appropriate brownfield sites are left undeveloped, growing land banks, fewer and fewer affordable homes in any development etc. etc.  There is a strong sense that ministers are in denial about what is really happening.  Andrew Lainton’s blog today supports CPRE members’ concerns about land banking.

But, it is good to begin the discussion, and there is common ground.  We all want to see an increase in house building, no one wants to see dead villages.  The question is, how can we get acceptable levels of house building without unacceptable loss of countryside and green space within towns?  CPRE knows the answer, of course, and we will keep trying to persuade ministers.

After Nick Boles’s speech, CPRE’s President, Sir Andrew Motion gave his annual address.  Andrew recalled a previous planning Minister, Harold Macmillan, speaking at CPRE’s AGM in 1954 and saying: “If, in a period of national stringency good planning is sacrificed merely on financial grounds, it will probably never be regained.”  David Cameron is said to be an admirer of Macmillan, and I hope he agrees.

Andrew’s speech is a good summary of many of the issues CPRE faces, but its closing passages on ‘why it all matters’ are particularly powerful.

“Our principles are fundamental in the most literal sense, because we are a species that evolved in the countryside, and only very recently adapted to living in towns. Inside us all, wherever we live, however familiar we might or might not be with the countryside, is an absolutely primal atavistic need for green places and open spaces.

“The more we are bombarded by the demands of modern life, the more important it becomes to enjoy peace and quiet, more darkness, more solitude, more beauty, the pleasures of uncluttered ground. In the countryside time slows down, longer perspectives open, richer thoughts accumulate – because in the countryside we enjoy the essential things about being human; the things that link us with our better selves, and even allow us to see our less-good selves more clearly….

“Those green fields that Nick Boles argues have less value to society than the houses he would build on them – they are the bedrock of everything. If we lose them we lose something essential to our selves.”

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