It would be easy to imagine the English countryside is a lovely place. Everyone has been talking about discovering the wonder of nature during lockdown and there are constant reports of droves moving out of towns and cities for more pastoral locations.
In many ways, however, the opposite is true. Look around and you’ll find local actions groups protesting, petitioning and even praying to save precious stretches of countryside from destruction. If you are one of the escapees from town, I’d check your new view isn’t earmarked for development.
We have already seen an orgy of eco-vandalism as a result of the HS2 rail project: heartbreaking images of wrecked nature reserves, magnificent old trees felled and ancient hedges bulldozed. But HS2 is only one in a vast catalogue of destructive developments. In Greater Manchester, for example, Friends of Carrington Moss are fighting a massive housing project planned on green belt that is also precious peatland. Meanwhile there are countrywide protests against the government’s road building spree. The Wensum link in Norfolk; the Stonehenge tunnel; the Lower Thames Crossing; and major roads in sensitive open countryside in Lancashire, to name but a few.
Kent is particularly badly hit – not just by Brexit lorry parks. Housing developments are everywhere, Graveney marshes have been designated for industrialisation, and now another ecologically important marsh at Swanscombe is targeted for a vast theme park billed as “the UK’s answer to Disney World”.
Protest groups fighting these developments are usually made up of inexperienced, previously apolitical, locals. Out of necessity they fight separate local campaigns. But the current level of destructive development is a nationwide problem requiring a nationwide response. Taken together, these developments are changing the character of the countryside towards urban sprawl. They are inflicting irreversible damage on wildlife.
What’s enabling this destruction is the national planning system, which ought to protect local communities, but now disempowers them. Planning has been hijacked by two doctrines. One is that pouring concrete will get us out of recession, the other that there’s a general housing crisis rather than an affordability crisis. Local challenges to these views are steamrollered as merely nimbyism.
Since the coalition government introduced the national planning policy framework in 2012 the planning system has increasingly favoured developers. That legislation insisted councils set housing targets but they lacked land to meet those numbers. Local authorities were forced to redefine green-belt areas as “available for development”. It was the beginning of a land grab. The Campaign to Protect Rural England states (in 2018’s The State of the Green Belt report) that since 2013 “huge amounts of greenfield land designated as green belt has been released or included in councils’ local plans”.
Robert Jenrick’s so-called planning “reforms” now go a lot further. Even after a backbench rebellion and a rethink of the algorithm used to calculate housing targets, the housing secretary still wants to impose a controversial American system of zoning along with a presumption in favour of development. The proposals are scarily anti-democratic. Housing targets will be imposed by central government and local input sidelined. Yet the housing developments championed by Jenrick do nothing to increase the number of affordable homes. Developers don’t want to build cheap starter homes. They prefer five-bedroom, low-density housing – hence the hunger for greenfield sites, especially those near beauty spots, which are massively more profitable. Meanwhile developers shun available brownfield sites that CPRE estimates could support building 1m new homes.
The National Infrastructure Commission’s assault on local democracy is even more blatant. The NIC is truly a wrecking ball to the countryside. Alongside HS2, think Minsmere, the RSPB’s jewel in the crown, threatened by Sizewell C, or the proposal for a million houses on “the Oxford-Cambridge arc”, most of which would be on green belt. And let’s not forget Guston lorry park, dumped on the unsuspecting residents of Dover. Local opposition is virtually irrelevant in NIC hearings. I know this first-hand having attended one such inquiry where local experts were openly mocked by some of the developers present. It felt like a sham of democracy.
Boris Johnson sometimes claims to care about biodiversity and speaks of supporting nature’s recovery and protecting green belts, digressing once about families picnicking in “wild belts” amid flourishing flora and fauna. But he also loves putting on hard hats for photo ops, promoting “build, build, build” and saying he won’t let “newt counters” get in his way. If “green” Johnson was the real thing, he would insist Robert Jenrick consider planning alongside environmental ambitions. And he would push through the much delayed environment bill, which could provide a framework for joined-up thinking on the environment. Instead he presides over a tsunami of destruction.
There are glimmers of a national fightback. The nationally coordinated Transport Action Network has just challenged the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, for rejecting environmental impact assessment in his road building policy. And CPRE is coordinating other green groups to put forward a democratic, ecologically aware vision of what planning could do in a post-pandemic world. The local groups waging their lonely battles need this national cooperation if the fight against the Tories’ eco-vandalism is to succeed – we need it before it is too late.
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FRIENDS OF SOUTH HAMS
This Web site is for those who love the South Hams “The jewel in the crown of Devon” and who wish to protect and enhance the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
- Ros Coward is professor emerita of journalism at Roehampton University