Our countryside, however, provides so much more than its scenery. It offers rest, recreation and food. It attracts tourists and supports businesses. And it bursts with potential for thriving, tranquil, living communities.
Quite simply, we need the countryside: it’s irreplaceable. But once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. And right now it’s under threat when it needn’t be.
As a report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) highlighted, there is a clear and present danger to the green belt.
Green belt land was designated to stop urban sprawl across the countryside, and allow city dwellers easy access to open space and clean air.
Yet now we find more than 40,000 new homes are planned for the South and West Yorkshire green belts – and that is before we consider York, whose council recently deferred plans to open up the city’s green belt for housing development.
CPRE realises that we need affordable homes to keep the rural economy and communities alive. But why do we have to build what we don’t need in order to achieve a little bit of what we really need?
We can deliver what we do need with smart planning: building on brownfield land rather than green fields, protecting the Green Belt and increasing the delivery of the homes our communities want. And by using local skills from our small and medium-sized builders, we will get buildings that reflect the character of our towns and villages while supporting their economies.
All too often we hear that planning decisions are taken to suit large developers against the wishes of local people. We need to listen to local people.
The next Government needs to introduce a community right of appeal where a neighbourhood plan has been prepared.
We must look at more than just housing, though. In its manifesto for all parties ahead of the election, CPRE has outlined what it wants the next Government to tackle: energy demand in the countryside; the pressures of new transport infrastructure; the problem of litter; and how to ensure we produce the food and resources we need, while recognising the importance of tourism and business to create thriving rural communities.
When we build, we need to make sure that we reduce energy demand by building better insulated homes and incentivising renewable energy on brownfield land and roofs. New energy infrastructure needs to minimise the impact on our countryside and meet the needs of the rural communities.
Anyone who lives in the countryside knows that transport is an important issue – and the narrow lanes of Yorkshire were designed for the horse and cart – not large modern vehicles.
But, for starters, we can reduce the impact on the countryside of freight traffic through the creation of more local distribution hubs to minimise large vehicle movements. We can also reduce car traffic and connect our rural communities better through community-led, integrated and expanded public transport networks.
CPRE is also keen to make sure that those in power champion and deliver solutions to get rid of littering and fly tipping in the countryside.
How many times have you driven along a country road to find the verges full of carrier bags, fast food cartons, empty bottles...?
A cross-party group of MPs recently published an important report recommending nationwide action against those who litter from vehicles, and the introduction of a national litter strategy – something that we fervently support. But we also need a strong commitment to a national behaviour change campaign to challenge the culture of littering. Stop The Drop? Let’s do just that.
The media showed off the beauty of the Yorkshire countryside to the world last year and tourists flocked here to see it for themselves. To keep them coming again and again, we need to recognise that they came for the countryside, and that farming is the backbone of that countryside, the “glue that holds it all together”.
Those dry stone walls don’t look after themselves. Farming and tourism run hand in hand and it is time we recognised this.
Farming also protects the valuable grazing and arable land that ensures we can produce more food, which in turn promotes and supports our many outstanding local food producers.
These in turn feed us and the rural economy, which keeps our rural communities alive and thriving. Our farmers and how they farm are crucial to our countryside.
People often misinterpret what CPRE is trying to do. What we want is to create a thriving, living, breathing countryside for the benefit of this and future generations. And we’re looking for the support of the next Government to help us realise it.
• Julia Marley is chair of Yorkshire and Humber regional group of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.