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. It is not just events that get in the way of fulfilling manifesto promises; people make a difference.

On housing and planning, for instance, there were three phases during the last government. First, a genuine attempt to localise and simplify the planning system, led by Greg Clark but subverted by the Treasury. Second, Nick Boles’s pugnacious time as planning minister, which causes lots of (sometimes enjoyable) aggro, but damaged the countryside and failed to get more homes built. Finally, Brandon Lewis as housing and planning minister generated less heat but considerably more light.

This is a reminder that to avoid ‘the cant of “measures not men”’. Ministers matter. We will soon know who we have and – in the most important departments for the countryside – whether they will have any chance of standing up to the Treasury (or whether they want to).

I hope that goodwill and good ministers will make ensure that the new government is considerably better for the countryside and wider environment than most of my NGO colleagues fear. But here are a few reasons to be cautious.

Housing

The Conservative Manifesto proposes to help housing association tenants buy their homes. I am pleased that part of the proceeds will go into a Brownfield Fund, but pumping money into the housing market rather than using it to build houses is massively counter-productive. Housing association tenants will get a very nice subsidy from the taxpayer, but other first time buyers will face higher prices. And flogging social housing without replacing it will seriously compound the housing crisis, hitting those most in need. It is highly unlikely that the homes expropriated from housing associations (the Conservative Party having a Leninist moment) will be replaced one-for-one. I hope the Government will think again.

Planning

Neighbourhood planning will continue to be supported and the punk economics of the free market think-tanks – release more greenfield land and the market will miraculously produce more homes – looks set to be resisted. This is good. But we need better ways of deciding where new housing should go, and we need to make better use of existing stock across the country (in this respect, the PM’s renewed commitment today to a ‘northern powerhouse’ is very welcome). In short, we need some sort of strategic planning.

It suits CPRE to see off the drive for large-scale development in the countryside – that is a large part of our purpose – but it does not suit us to see the too few homes built year after year, too many of them in the wrong places. At present it is left to 330 local councils and the Planning Inspectorate to decide how many homes should be built and where they should go. That did not work in the last Parliament and it will not work in the next. In the longer term, England needs a land use strategy, encompassing the recovery of nature, flood protection, carbon sequestration and all the other uses of land, as well as development. There will be plenty of SNP MPs in the new Parliament to consult on the Scottish land use strategy.

The Green Belt

The planning system puts huge pressure on inadequately resourced local authorities to find land for housing. The Government has become clearer in the last couple of years that this should not be at the expense of the Green Belt – see, for instance, David Cameron’s interview with Andrew Motion – but still land is being removed from the Green Belt at an alarming rate, without proper Green Belt reviews and without a clear justification of ‘exceptional circumstances’. The Conservative Manifesto takes credit for the defence of the Green Belt, and perhaps Ministers really do believe that the Green Belt has been safe in their hands. But if they do, they are not listening to their local authority colleagues.

Launching the Conservatives’ housing plans, David Cameron said: ‘I want my children to be able to walk, as they can now, from Liverpool to Leeds through Green Belt protected land.’ They might be wise to make the walk now (all 70 miles of it) as some of the authorities along the way are already progressing Green Belt reviews or Green Belt release – Liverpool, Sefton, Knowsley, Manchester, Salford (which was told by the Inspector that it had allocated too many brownfield sites in its draft local plan), Tameside and Pendle, to name a few.

Warm words on the Green Belt are welcome, but will the Government really defend it in this Parliament, as it failed to in the last?

Roads

The Manifesto says that new roads will be built ‘in a way that limits, as far as possible, their impact on the environment’. There is a commitment to more tunnelling, better noise barriers, less light pollution and ‘helping to restore lost habitats’. I will pass on the philosophical question of how you restore something you have ‘lost’, which I think means destroyed, and simply welcome this commitment to build new roads in a more sensitive way (see John Hayes’s speech to CPRE and the Campaign for Better Transport). But there is no getting away from the fact that building 1300 extra lane miles of roads will have an extremely damaging impact on the countryside, including the countryside in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Beauty.

Europe

Overall, the EU has been good for the environment. The Government is committed to a referendum on our membership, and we have seen recently how unpredictable referendums and elections can be. So it looks reasonably likely that the UK (assuming we still have a UK) will choose to leave the EU within the next five years. The consequences for farming and the environment could be immense, though they have barely had a look-in the debate so far.

Litter

I always feel the risk of bathos when I write about CPRE’s Stop the Drop campaign. How can litter be discussed in the same breath as the housing crisis or whether Britain decides to go it alone (like 1940, but this time voluntarily)? I was cheered, therefore, that Radio 4’s The Listeners’ Election focussed on litter as an issue that ‘cuts to the heart of the most basic question in contemporary politics: who takes responsibility for making life better?’ The Conservative Manifesto takes credit for the Coalition’s introduction of a charge for single-use carrier bags. The bag charge was pushed by Conservative MPs, notably Zac Goldsmith, and supported by the Prime Minister. But other Conservative ministers (no prizes for guessing who) did their best to weaken the policy and its survival was largely down to Nick Clegg and other Liberal Democrats. I hope the bag charge – and a wider drive against litter – will be supported by the new government.

Other issues

There are many other important issues, of course. The two Energy and Climate Secretaries in the Coalition were Liberal Democrats, and complained fairly publicly that they were being undermined by the Chancellor and the Communities Secretary. How will a Conservative Secretary of State tackle the brief? What will happen to farming policy? What of the commitment to a 25 year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity? I guess we will have to see.

8 Responses to “The Conservative government and the countryside”


  1. 1 Alice Crampin May 8, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    Once, long ago, and naively, I thought that actively supporting “stop the drop” would be an ideal way for the government to introduce and flesh out its Big Society notion, even if it had no serious intention of being the “greenest government ever”. Alas.

  2. 4 tomoliver18 May 9, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    Prominence by omission

    Is there any chance of turning your attention to the devastating effects of badly planned renewable energy infrastructure? Thank goodness we have at least got rid of Edward Davey.

    Need for spine

    I notice that you don’t use the urgent demand for housing as an excuse to sit on your hands on safeguarding the Green Belt, which is wise. I hope you are not tempted to try accusations of ‘climate change denial’ to render yourself impotent in restraining the industrialising of the countryside with renewable energy generation and transmission capacity.

    Scottish utilitarianism

    The idea of an organisation which purports to protect landscapes consulting SNP MPs on the subject sounds… outlandish. I wonder whether you have seen much Scottish landscape recently? I recommend the Lammermuirs, or rather, I don’t, alas. Or perhaps you might be enthused by the SNP’s wholehearted support for fish farming?

    I think I might concentrate on building good relations and understanding with the governing party in England…unpalatable as that might possibly be to a former Labour MEP. There’s always hope.

    • 5 sspiers May 11, 2015 at 9:01 am

      Tom, thanks for your comment. It was a stunning victory for the Conservative Party, but it is not CPRE’s job to be a cheerleader for any political party. We weren’t cheerleaders for the Labour governments and we won’t be for this one. My five year stint as a Labour MEP, which ended 15 years ago, is irrelevant.

      We will, however, work hard to build ‘good relations and understanding’, as we did with the Coalition. In the last year we have had a good dialogue with Liz Truss, Oliver Letwin, Brandon Lewis, John Hayes and others (including special advisers) and I hope we will continue to work closely with them or their successors. We will also criticise them or challenge them when we think it’s appropriate, as CPRE has always done.

      I couldn’t write about everything in my blog, but the Conservative Party’s sensitivity to the landscape impacts of some energy projects is very welcome.

      My comment that ‘there will be plenty of SNP MPs in the new Parliament to consult’ was intended to be light-hearted, but I do believe that England could learn some things from the Scottish land use strategy.

  3. 6 Alice Crampin May 10, 2015 at 9:44 am

    Dangerous primrose paths on offer in the above.

  4. 7 Stephen Leary (@AntiOpencast) May 11, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Hello Shaun,

    Would CPRE consider taking any action on tacking the rather ambiguous position that is the position of coal in the planning system? Prior to the election, all the main party leaders pledged to remove unabated coal from being used in power stations by 2025. However nothing was said about changing the current planning system when it comes to considering granting planning approval for new opencast mines.

    At present, applicants can claim that extracting indigenous coal lessens the carbon footprint because it will take fewer carbon emissions to transport this coal to power stations than it would importing it from Siberia!! This is treated as a material consideration when such applications are determined and totally disregards what the impact will be of burning the coal in UK Power stations would be if planning approval is granted.

    In addition opencast mining causes environmental destruction – in Scotland and Wales currently on a large scale (see George Monbiot’s recent article:

    ‘Big Coal’s big scam: scar the land for profit, then let others pay to clean up’ (The Guardian, 28/4/15 @ http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/28/big-coal-keep-it-in-the-ground-energy-opencast-mines)

    England is not immune from the risk of having un-restored sites since UK Coal went into administration, It seems not all of their English sites have since been properly restored, Stobswood and Steadsburn in Northumberland and Huntington Lane in Telford all it seems, need more work done on them to fully restore the sites.

    And new applications are still current, Bradley in Co Durham is one and Banks Mining has indicated its intention to seek planning permission for the 5m tonne Highthorn site in Northumberland.

    The Loose Anti Opencast Group (LAON) have been working with local groups who oppose opencast mine applications since 2009. Because of our experience, we seek to end this anomalous position with regard to coal, when energy policy plans to end its use for the foreseeable future whilst planning policy encourages its extraction and use. To this end LAON is proposing changes to the NPPF along the following lines:

    LAON argues that there should be a closer correspondence between Climate Change policies aimed at reducing the risk of Climate Change and National Planning Policies. To this end, LAON seeks the following changes in National Planning Policies:

    • Firstly, applicants for new opencast mines should have to agree to provide a ‘Pre Payment Restoration Bond which would give effective control over the development of the site back to the planning authority. Under such a system, as proposed by Durham County council for the Bradley site. No new phase of the development could be started if the money to restore that phase of the development was not in the hands of the planning authority before that phase started.

    • Secondly, as part of national strategies to prevent climate change, the applicant would have to prove that the coal extracted would only be used by a facility / power station fitted with Carbon Capture and Storage Technology.

    • Thirdly, applicants would have to prove that the short term economic benefits of surface mining the coal fully outweigh the social costs of causing pollution, needing to fund climate mitigation measures caused by burning the coal and the costs falling on the NHS of air pollution which contributes to the cost of treating chronic illness conditions and up to 1600 annually estimated premature deaths in the UK from burning coal for power generation purposes.

    • Fourthly all UK citizens should benefit from the same level of protection from the risk of opencast mining by having implemented an effective 500 meter buffer zone surrounding all new opencast coal sites as suggest in Andrew Bridgen’s ‘500m Buffer Zone Bill’ .

    • Lastly the clauses in previous planning guidance on there being a ‘presumption against opencast mining’ should be reinserted into planning guidance.

    We believe that proposals along these lines, if adopted by the Government would go a long way to protecting large areas of the counrtyside from the risk of opencast mining and the legacy of un-restored mine sites.

    I would be interested in any comments you have to make on these ideas for change and whether CPRE would consider supporting these proposals to change the English Planning System?

    Steve Leary for The Loose Anti Opencast Network.

  5. 8 Nick Clack May 18, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Hi Steve, thanks for your comments on the back of Shaun’s blog. We’ve previously discussed the overall point you make about the incongruous relationship between the political messaging on coal, and from others such as the Committee on Climate Change on one hand and the realities of the planning system on the other. Indeed CPRE signed up to one of your previous calls in similar territory. I have sympathy with the anomaly you point out, and several of the specific asks you put forward fit quite well with our emerging asks on shale.

    Best wishes,

    Nick.


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