Urban containment or urban exodus?

Here is a slightly longer version of an article that will appear in the next issue of the Countryman, available by subscription or from all good newsagents.

In August, deep in the silly season, the Chancellor and Environment Secretary wrote an interesting joint article for the Daily Telegraph. I am not sure they meant it to be interesting. For Ministers,  being interesting is almost as inadvisable as being courageous. (Sir Humphrey Appleby: “If you want to be really sure that the Minister doesn’t accept it, you must say the decision is “courageous.”)

The article was headlined: With our plan, the countryside can become Britain’s engine of growth. It not only welcomed “the flight from city to country” of some 60,000 people a year (a phenomenon known as “white flight” in the USA); it set out proposals to encourage it, for instance through rural enterprise zones.

This is a pretty big deal. No one should oppose an economically productive countryside, and I hope the Ministers’ commitment to the rural economy signals a willingness to rethink the sale of housing associations properties in rural areas, to restore rural bus services and to complete the roll-out of rural broadband.

But does the Government really want to encourage all who can afford to move to the countryside to do so? Does it want to see the new homes, businesses and roads that will enable affluent people to leave towns and cities and settle in or on the edge of villages? And if it does, how will it ensure that the country remains the country?

Villages have always changed and I know of few that could not benefit from a few extra houses, ideally council or housing association houses for local workers. But for more than 60 years British governments of all complexions have followed a policy of focusing growth in towns and cities. This has been good for urban areas, keeping them economically vibrant and socially mixed, and it has been good for the countryside. Indeed, it is because rural areas have largely retained their beauty and tranquillity that they are so attractive to incomers.

So Ministers should pause before abandoning urban containment and countryside protection in favour of a rural economic and population growth. Trying to make rural areas a key driver of national economic growth for the first time since the industrial revolution not only risks destroying what makes the countryside special; it also threatens the viability of towns and cities.

There is one good reason for doubting that George Osborne and Liz Truss are serious about wanting a total reversal of policy. They suggest that neighbourhood planning can be the vehicle for village growth. So it can, and villages across England are now planning for a few extra houses. Neighbourhood planning is playing a very useful role in encouraging positive change in – change supported by local communities, not imposed on them. But neighbourhood plans have to be agreed in local referendums, and while most referendums have supported some development, few villages are going to vote to become towns. I suspect the Ministers know that.

9 Responses to “Urban containment or urban exodus?”

  1. 1 antvren September 10, 2015 at 2:45 am

    The typical rural settler is affluent, buys a property a little beyond what locals can afford, and commutes to work in the city: not good for the receiving community, neglectful of the city community, and resulting in emissions inflation.
    The ideal rural settler is planning to work with the community, joining in with work, family and social aspects.
    A lot of the ills of the current methods of farming entail more hands-on labour, but with the prospect of lower costs to suppliers. I’m talking about more than organic – no-dig and perennial crops that retain soil carbon, mixed fields that result in filled ecological niches that monocultures just can’t manage, and full use of all the products.

  2. 2 Rodney Elliott September 10, 2015 at 7:13 pm

    If I correctly recall, the original ministerial press release asserted that it is only in Britain that people aspire to return to rural living. Balderdash. Although I cannot comment about most of Europe, my having held a prolonged permanent residency in SW France, plus having visited France regularly from 1965, I can categorically say the aspirations of many ‘Frenchmen’ are very similar to ours in that respect and, indeed, I would suggest perhaps more so. It is said that the heart of every Frenchman is in the soil of ‘his’ country and their dream is to own a small holding and live the ‘good life’. May be that is an exaggeration, just as would be for for vast numbers of British, but, as here, if and when a family circumstances permit, their imperative is commonly to desert at the first opportunity what has become the disagreeable modern urban life for the peace and quiet of rural living, regardless of its potential shortcomings.

    As other respondents have commented, though, that then invariably becomes the preserve of the well heeled and that, in itself, commonly places rural properties well beyond the reach of those who have to live in close proximity to their rural places of work. Of course, the government can assert we can embark upon an ‘affordable homes’ policy for rural workers, but all experience demonstrates how such policies always fail because of over demand and the hard fact of developers being mercenary opportunists. As has been already suggested, the net effect of that is that new residents who have little true vested interest in rural economies then place even greater pressures on already inadequate infrastructures, making life even more difficult for those who genuinely depend upon a rural livelihood.

    There are those, of course, including government pundits, who dream that by providing super-fast broadband in remote locations that will transform those local economies. No doubt there will be a handful of residents who can exploit that facility to their advantage, but, again, they are more likely to be the ‘comers-in’ who are seeking a new life away from distasteful urbanism than being genuine locals who are capitalising on broadband to open up viable new business opportunities.

    As is usual, we are being subjected to government facile and usually valueless assertions dreamed up by faceless spin-doctors, the imagination of whom is limited to what they hope will be accepted as being plausible soundbites, and that is truly cynical.

  3. 3 Andrew Carey September 10, 2015 at 8:45 pm

    “destroying what makes the countryside special”
    Like the 85 GBP acre agricultural subsidies, the inheritance tax exemptions, the cheap red diesel, and the business rate exemption on farm buildings. Like National Parks which are in theory the BEST lands we have accounting for 8% of the land area and less than 3% of tourism jobs.
    What makes the countryside special is the sponging off the rest of us, and the fact there is overwhelmingly no-one there enjoying it. All the unsubsidised tax generating activity and all the interesting things to do that people enjoy take place where there is development.

    • 4 Rodney Elliott September 10, 2015 at 10:33 pm

      What sort of churlish and ill-informed response is that? Your facts may be accurate. I would not know, but are you suggesting that we scrap national parks status and allow them to degenerate into even more hideous concrete jungles than our developers and colluding planners have foisted upon us already?

      Furthermore, rural environments are not alone in enjoying tax breaks. The urban environment can and does equally enjoys its privileges, such as the scandal of the several thousand private homes in and around East Lancashire and West Yorkshire which are registered as places of worship, some of them being exceptionally grand properties approaching or even exceeding the £1million mark in value and can have up to a £half million’s worth of cars on their drives. No doubt a similar practice applies too in many other parts of the UK, but you try to pull that stunt on your council!

      That said, I am sure there are unwarranted financial privileges extended to farm operators, especially the larger ones, although I am neither an authority on that subject, nor feel as churlish about it as you clearly seem to be. Indeed, I would not want to be in a business which could be devastated overnight by a mere quirk of our fickle climate, or some unexpected disease, the rampage of which one can have no control. Furthermore, successive governmental regimes have colluded with the big land owners to make small farming units totally nonviable, so life is not so rosy for all rural dwellers. They are not all super-rich aristocratic absentee landlords.

      Indeed, if one wants to make comparisons, try looking into the secret machinations of the construction and larger retail industries and the unimaginably huge and valuable land banks they have accumulated since WW2. They are sitting on large tracts of land which they refuse to release because successive governments have conspired to afford the release of urban greenfield sites and greenbelt for developments to pacify the avarice of those industries, not to mention the old boys network. Also, those ‘schemes’ are not without their creative accountancy tax breaks.

      There are a great many organisations and individuals in the UK who enjoy such unjustifiable and inequitable creative accountancy tax avoidance schemes, simply because they have the power and wealth to manipulate the rules, but many of those contribute little to either the well-being or the tax revenues of this nation. Furthermore, and this me being a bit churlish, just because one may ride a bike and use the bus, does not essentially qualify one’s environmental credentials, although there is a hard core of bike/public transport users who would have those of us who do not, or indeed cannot, brow-beaten into believing theirs is a more laudable and sustainable mode of life in the hope of instilling feelings of guilt.

  4. 5 Andrew Carey September 12, 2015 at 1:42 am

    Yes, I’m suggesting we scrap national park status. Along with the green belt it’s the oldest of the main conservation types we have, and the least relevant to today’s world.
    The suggestion though that national park or green belt status is the last remaining obstacle to coverage with a layer of concrete is laughable.

    It is absurd that the UK government has until now been subsidising onshore wind farms and also subsidising organisations that prevent them being built in the most effective places ( i.e. the ones that are windiest ). Only blatantly protectionist organisations like the CPRE could support both sets of subsidies. The CPRE should be binned too.

    • 6 Rodney Elliott September 12, 2015 at 9:20 am

      I agree with you about windfarms. They are all but useless for the purpose for which they are being promoted. The foisting upon us of the concept of windfarms has to be one of the most effective and successful confidence tricks ever upon a hapless public by successive governments, the visions of which have been limited ensuring the lucrative futures of well placed individuals rather than having public greater good being at the core of their strategies. But what can one else should one expect from establishments dominated by lawyers, accountants, financiers and self-styled economic ‘experts’, the vast majority of whom are predominantly motivated by their own self-aggrandising and their personal financial enhancements.

      As for the rest of this exchange, clear there is no useful purpose in persisting with discussions with people, the vision and intellect of whom is limited to a deep knowledge of the price of everything but little comprehension of the true value of anything.

      • 7 Andrew Carey September 19, 2015 at 11:16 pm

        Do you really think you’ve attained a higher level of well-being if you reject the price mechanism of determining desirable outcomes for humans, but have found a way of knowing the ‘true value’ of things.
        Why don’t you visit some of the dozen or so large towns and cities that never had a green belt, and tell the residents they missed out and their housing stock is rubbish and that they have no countryside nearby to enjoy or a place to walk their dog. They will take you to the edge of their fine towns and laugh at you along their way because towns without green belts have done just fine.
        Sadly for you we do have qualitative surveys on happiness in the UK, and the ten least happy council areas are in cities constrained by green belts. You’d be a fool to conclude causation, but I’d rather not take my chances, cheers.

  5. 8 antvren September 13, 2015 at 2:58 am

    I differ on wind farms. They’re cheap and their power costs are on a par with nuclear and fossil; they soon pay back on the energy used to make them. Yes, they’re intermittent, but so is a car’s use: it doesn’t stop people buying them! With enough interconnections surpluses can be spread out; and with intelligent energy use on fridges and heating, consumption can be made to match availability. I’d rather have wind farms than climate change.
    The big challenge though is to knock our energy consumption down to what can be matched by renewables. A litre of veg oil has enough energy to keep a adult going for 4 days; or converted to biodiesel, drive a car 10 miles (at 45mpg). And aviation is as bad as each passenger driving their own car to that destination. Our homes could be Passivhaus standard, capable of being warm on the heat from solar gain, occupants and appliances only. The whole world population cannot use energy like this without consequences.

  6. 9 CPRE Local Supporter September 24, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    Very fortunately the present Government has managed to halt the spread of wind turbines across England and off our beautiful coastlines. This is because rural people and their Conservative MPs saw how much damage they were doing, and how they were all subsidised too. It is the work of Tory MPs that has done it. Conservative Ministers in the last (coalition) Government refused to approve any more despite Inspectors recommending approvals. (Inspectors do this because planning guidance dating from Labour in office is tilted in favour of windfarms too often, and it has not been replaced.)
    Unfortunately the DECC was in 2010-15 the hands of Lib Dem Ministers who were pro-windfarm, so some offshore locations (notably off Brighton and Shoreham) received approval (no one knows if that one can be stopped). Once the Lib Dems were out, the Tory Ministers now at DECC have stopped supporting them. Hence the recent refusal of the appalling ‘Navitus’ scheme off the isle of Purbeck.
    This welcome change was not the doing of CPRE National Office which continues to ‘support wind turbines in the right places’…. it has been CPRE Branches which took over and ensured strong opposition to windfarms by CPRE. One can see what damage can be done when Ministers ignore local opinion – Scotland is being gravely damaged by SNP Ministers’ approvals of large windfarms despite huge local opposition.
    Shaun Spiers’s statement that the flight from city to the countryside is ‘known as “white flight” in the USA’ is misleading. What ‘white flight’ in America is is well-known and it’s not that! Anyway Americans don’t move to ‘the countryside’ as mostly they don’t have one – they move to suburbs and have been doing since 1945.

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