Our new Prime Minister and the countryside

Congratulations to Theresa May on becoming Prime Minister.

What follows is a brief overview of some of Mrs May’s stated views as they relate to CPRE’s work. Over the next week I will write about other appointments and departures, and look at some of the main challenges the new government faces, notably fashioning a new English Agricultural Policy and tackling the housing crisis.

For someone so prominent in British politics, it is surprising how little we know about Theresa May’s views. As a recent article in the Financial Times (£) puts it: “In her 19 years as an MP, Theresa May has made a habit of sticking to the party line and her brief, rather than laying out broad political views.” This stands in striking contrast to at least one of her recent appointments.

But we do know that Theresa May has been an assiduous MP for Maidenhead, supporting local campaigns to improve the town and protect the countryside around it. Indeed, she gave a well-received speech at last October’s CPRE Berkshire AGM, though she was careful to stick to the Government line. Her website celebrates Maidenhead’s “beautiful surrounding countryside” and she enjoys village life, recalling on Desert Island Discs “many happy evenings in the… village hall with friends”.

Cheeringly for CPRE supporters, her website has the following section on planning and development.

Theresa May speaking at CPRE Berkshire Branch AGM  on 23rd October 2015. Photo credit: Nigel Keene

Theresa May speaking at CPRE Berkshire Branch AGM on 23rd October 2015.
Photo credit: Nigel Keene

“Maidenhead and the surrounding areas face immense pressure for more residential development. This part of Berkshire is a great place to live and we want to keep its character. That’s why Theresa has a track record of campaigning against overdevelopment. Theresa opposes any weakening of the rules which protect the countryside from excessive development, such as regional development targets.

“Theresa is regularly in touch with both Wokingham Borough Council and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead to ensure they are listening to local residents’ views on development proposals. She meets local residents to discuss development issues and she has campaigned against inappropriate large-scale developments and will continue to fight to preserve the character of our local area.”

If Theresa May really has taken a personal interest in planning, there can be little doubt that she understands that fantasy housing targets are forcing the release of greenfield land without actually increasing housing delivery. Mind you, David Cameron also understood that, or half understood. Finding time as Prime Minister to do anything about it is the challenge.

Hansard reveals that our new Prime Minister has spoken up for Green Belt[1] protection and urban regeneration. In December 2005, from the front bench, she said that the then government found it easy “to be bewitched by the superficial image of areas such as the Lake District, and to avoid or fail to see the real needs of Cumbria. I find it incomprehensible that this Government – a Labour Government – seem to have no real regional policy other than to create layers of regional bureaucracy…

“Far from being based on regeneration, their regional policy is based… on sucking jobs, services and funding away from counties such as Cumbria… Devon and Shropshire. The paradox of their position is that while they suck resources away from areas in the north, the south-west and elsewhere, they are forcing greater and greater development into parts of the south-east that do not want it…. There is no fairness and justice in their treatment of many regions of this country, and of rural areas in particular.”

More recently, in May 2013, Mrs May criticised “Britain’s over-reliance on financial services” and warned that low labour costs in Asia had “led to job losses at home, especially in sectors like manufacturing”. She warned that “while London has boomed, many parts of Britain have suffered painful deindustrialisation and unemployment”.

Her campaign launch speech also highlighted the “gaping chasm between wealthy London and the rest of the country” and the need to help “every single one of our great regional cities”. It may be this belief in supporting growth beyond the south-east that motivates her reported support for HS2.

I hope that as Prime Minister Theresa May will pursue this logic and kill plans for airport expansion in the south-east – not only Heathrow, which she has previously opposed, but Gatwick. A new runway at Gatwick will damage countryside and tranquillity in three counties and suck potential growth into London and the south-east.

[1] In December 2005 she joined Philip Hammond, John McDonnell (then a rebellious Labour backbencher) in supporting this Early Day Motion : “That this House commends the campaign to protect rural England for its work in highlighting the 50th year of the green belt and in defending green spaces; notes the risk that the Government’s policies on development in the South East, East Anglia and in other regions will lead to the disappearance of many parts of rural England; and calls for an urgent review of the environmental impact of those policies to guarantee the green belt for the next 50 years.”

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