Tom Richmond: Sacrificing green fields to sprawl is not the answer

SOME perspective is required before the destruction of England’s “green and pleasant land” is blamed on the latest influx of migrants from eastern Europe – and further afield.

As a report for the Campaign to Protect Rural England pointed out this week, there is still space for one million new homes on redundant brownfield land across Britain.

The problem, the CPRE points out, is the continued reluctance of the Government – and local councils for that matter – to put sufficient incentives in place so these redundant sites, some of which have stood empty for decades, can be turned into homes and businesses where appropriate.

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To me, the answer is simple. Every planning application involving five or more houses should have to pass a “brownfield” test in which an assessment is carried out to see if there is a more suitable site within the vicinity for such a development. There needs to be a total change of mindset to protect green belt land becoming an extension to the urban sprawl, and Nick Clegg recognised this with his visit to Berlin this week.

I’d also go further in light of continuing concerns about a shortage of school places, and GPs, as a result of Britain’s burgeoning population.

An assessment needs to be made about each application’s impact on local services – there will, for example, be cases where new homes might be the saviour for a village school under the threat of closure – and whether the drainage system is fit for purpose.

The same with cycling. Given the drive to reduce Britain’s dependency on the car, and to exploit the legacy created by Britain’s Olympic legacy and the successful staging of the Tour de France earlier this year, I’m all for developers being compelled – as a condition of planning approval – to ensure that their proposals contain adequate facilities for bike riders.

On too many occasions, and certainly on the outer extremities of Leeds where I live, councillors and officials have approved applications – and then bemoaned the impact on amenities, and road congestion, as an after-thought.

It is time, therefore, that the planning system moved into the 21st century rather than remaining rooted in the past. With the right incentives to transform brownfield sites, there is no reason why Britain’s cities and countryside cannot flourish in tandem.

ON the planning theme, it cannot be right that historic pubs can be converted into supermarkets without local residents being consulted.

There’s been an outcry at Deanshanger, on the edge of Milton Keynes, and now Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland – a prominent pub campaigner – has used Parliamentary concerns to voice his dismay at plans to turn the Kings Head hotel in Bedale into a Tesco store without local people having a say. What a shame that Commons leader William Hague, whose Richmond constituency includes Bedale, chose not to back the Lib Dem pub campaigner. He simply said this was “a legitimate subject of debate”.

It’s more than that. The extent to which supermarkets are circumventing planning rules in villages and market towns has the potential to change the dynamics of these areas – and not necessarily for the better.

I’m afraid Mr Hague’s non-response is indicative, once again, of the extent to which the specific needs of the rural economy continue to be marginalised by Westminster-based policy-makers.

The greater worry is that this mindset is even more entrenched in a pre-election year – the one time when politicians might be open to gentle persuasion from their constituents.

AT least one Labour MP is prepared to speak some sense about the influence of the party’s backbenchers from Scotland as more powers are devolved to Holyrood.

Step forward veteran backbencher Frank Field who has warned that Labour will be “increasingly be seen as a party of ghosts, representing a land that no longer exists” unless it addresses the issue of English under-representation.

Unfortunately there is little chance of Ed Miliband listening – Mr Field represents Birkenhead rather than a metropolitan constituency in North London from where the Labour leader’s close colleague Emily Thornberry posts patronising and snobbish tweets which mock the English working classes.

More’s the pity.

IT’S not just Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew who is reluctant to mention his party leader – avoiding the words “David Cameron” in his election leaflet – the latest missive from his Labour rival Jamie Hanley omits all mention of Ed Miliband. He does, however, go on length about the “Tory-led government”.

IS Tory Philip Davies about to jump 
ship to Ukip? Business Secretary Vince Cable certainly thought so when he answered a question from the 
Shipley MP on boardroom quotas for people from ethnic minority backgrounds on the day of the Rochester and Strood by-election.

York-born Cable began his response with these words: “I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman in his place. I thought he might have been in Rochester today, waiting to defect.”

How cutting.

PLEASE don’t knock Grand National-winning jockey Ryan Mania for retiring just 18 months after riding Sue and Harvey Smith’s Auroras Encore to Aintree glory. The average wage for a professional rider is just £30,680 per year – not a great reward for the sacrifices that have to be made in a sport when calamity is never more than a split-second away. Compared to the riches now being enjoyed by Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, I do not blame the likeable Mania for choosing to put himself first if 
he has fallen out of love with, arguably, the toughest sport of all.

UNHAPPY with his taxi driver, former Cabinet minister David Mellor posed this question amid various insults: “You’ve been driving a cab for 10 years, I’ve been in the Cabinet, I’m an award-winning broadcaster, I’m a Queen’s Counsel. You think that your experiences are anything compared to mine?”

I’ll give the loathsome Mellor an answer – a taxi driver probably knows far more about good governance, and basic courtesy, than a political has-been who was caught with his trousers down when he did make it to the Cabinet.