ON the face of it, this is an odd time for CPRE, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, to launch a charter to save our countryside.
We have only had a couple of similar campaigns in our 87-year history, and to a detached observer there probably seems little need to turn up the volume just now.
After all, the Government says it is committed to localism and it is constantly reaffirming its support for the Green Belt. Ministers such as the Prime Minister and the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles (a keen bird watcher) really do care about the countryside. And the country is barely out of recession: there is hardly a building boom.
Why, then, are CPRE activists and other conservationists gloomier now than I have ever known them? Why is there such a strong and widespread sense that the odds are stacked against local people trying to resist damaging development?
The answer, I am afraid, is because the odds really are stacked against them. People are feeling ignored because they are being ignored, and there is growing evidence that local opinion, in town as well as country, is being dismissed whenever a developer can argue that building something, however poorly designed or poorly located, will help the economy. At every stage, the needs of the economy are trumping those of the environment.
Of course, we need economic development, but not at any price. In the long run, if we degrade our environment we will find it harder to get economic growth: beautiful places thrive economically, but no one wants to live or invest in an ugly place, however good the transport connections.
Ministers continue to insist that local people are in control, but it simply isn’t so. Across the country we are seeing haphazard, poor quality development approved on green fields, often in the green belt, when perfectly suitable brownfield alternatives (derelict land or old industrial sites) are available.
It is true that we are not seeing diggers across the country, but when the housing market picks up, greenfield sites being allocated now will be developed, and struggling towns and cities, in desperate need of regeneration, will be left to struggle.
To give just one example, the heroic campaigners at Ward(Wharfedale and Airedale Review Development) tell me that over 500 houses a year for the next 15 years are planned for a handful of rural districts around Leeds and Bradford.
The figures are open to question (it is not clear why Leeds wants twice as much new housing, relative to population growth, as cities such as Bristol and Leicester) but what is absolutely clear is the harmful effect that growth on this scale and at such speed will have on some beautiful villages and countryside. Unless, that is, we plan properly and maximise the use of brownfield land.
We can do better, and it is to persuade politicians of all parties to do better that CPRE has launched the charter to save our countryside.
The charter has three simple demands. First, of course, don’t sacrifice our countryside! Wherever possible, development should go on suitable brownfield land. Some brownfield land is rich in flora and fauna and of great amenity value. We are not saying that every bit of land that is classified as “brownfield” should be developed before any countryside is touched.
But it makes sense to use derelict and neglected land that is doing no good to people or nature, and there is plenty of that around. The previous government introduced a strict hierarchy: first, restore existing buildings, then develop brownfield land, and only then encroach on the countryside. It was a terrible mistake for the coalition (I almost wrote “the Treasury”) to weaken the policy.
Second, the charter calls for a fair say for local communities. Every day I hear examples of local communities or local authorities identifying suitable sites for development, only to be told that they have to release a greenfield site because it is more “viable”.
If Ministers doubt this is happening, they are in denial. We have to persuade them, and I believe they are persuadable. Recent planning guidance from Eric Pickles on Green Belt protection and the location of wind farms, shows that he can listen and respond positively to reasoned arguments based on evidence – provided they have enough public support.
The third charter demand is for more housing – well designed, low energy housing in the right place, but still more of it. Too many people live in housing conditions that shame a wealthy nation. We are building too few homes to keep pace with our growing population. And we need to bring life to some villages and market towns that are in danger of dying. But, crucially, we need to listen to local people about what housing is needed and where it should go, and we need to plan it properly.
CPRE’s charter sets out a path for getting the development we need in ways that will safeguard our countryside and improve our towns. I hope Yorkshire Post readers will sign up on CPRE’s website, www.cpre.org.uk. We aim to create a groundswell of support that the Government and the other parties cannot ignore.
And if we fail? At the launch of the Charter, CPRE’s President Sir Andrew Motion recalled Philip Larkin’s poem Going Going in which he warned that if the devastation wrought by “concrete and tyres”’ were allowed to continue “that would be England gone”. Larkin’s words, Sir Andrew said, have “become a stark and completely realistic warning. If we don’t take a new and more thoughtful approach to planning and development, we stand a greater risk of ruining our countryside that at any time in recent memory. And once we’ve ruined it, we can’t un-ruin it. That will be England gone”.
It is a terrible prospect, but I am not in a mood for failure. I think we can persuade the Government to think again about what its policies are doing to the countryside. The countryside needs you. Join the fight. But before you put on your armour, please sign the charter.
• Shaun Spiers is chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.