The great and the good who run the National Trust, the organisation in charge of protecting the country’s finest buildings and landscapes, are not meant to get cross. But Sir Simon Jenkins is furious and — it seems — has been for a large part of his six years as chairman.
The reason for Sir Simon’s wrath is planning regulations and specifically the Coalition’s decision to rewrite them for England in the midst of the recession with a new bias in favour of “sustainable development”.
The Trust, and readers of The Telegraph through its Hands Off Our Land campaign, vigorously opposed the changes amid fears that they would give the whip hand to builders. And, two years after they were introduced, these concerns appear to have been borne out.
Sir Simon, who works unpaid for the Trust for one and a half days a week, probably sees more of England on a regular basis than politicians as he criss-crosses the country visiting the Trust’s 568 properties, sites and monuments spread across 635,000 acres, or 1.5 per cent of the total land mass of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
A recent trip to the Thames Valley, the Cotswolds and the Severn Valley, showed planning “is the sole subject of conversation”. “You go to Shrivenham, Tetbury, Buckingham, Stow-on-the-Wold, go up the Severn Valley, go to the Cotswolds; all these places — many of them in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty — are at war,” he says.“People are seriously angry. They feel that the Government has betrayed something they love and they feel confident that what they love is loved by most English people and the evidence supports that view. And there is no necessity for this massive development. The idea that we need 250,000 new homes and therefore they must be in the countryside is a daft statement.”
This week’s meeting of the Trust’s ruling council, which he attended, was again dominated by planning concerns.
Protections for the green belt around towns and cities to control sprawl, trumpeted by the Prime Minister and others when the reforms were laid out, are proving to be virtually worthless.
“We shouldn’t have to fight for the green belt in 2014. At the present moment 150,000 applications are in for the green belt. This should be absolutely inconceivable,” he says. “The green belt is no longer sacrosanct — that is the fact. A sensible planning regime would consider how you would best protect greenfield land around the cities.
“At the moment there is absolutely no trust that the Government is serious about protecting the green belt.” Villages are left “traumatised” by councils which are “fighting, fighting, fighting with local communities” to push through large-scale developments as they try to meet the new five-year housing targets required under the planning changes.
Sir Simon is himself traumatised by what he finds on his regular tours across England. “You have got to go to Sicily to find some of the planning decisions now being taken in Britain,” he says.
His big complaint is that the Government has swallowed developers’ arguments that they should be allowed to build on greenfield areas instead of the scorched brown earth left by former industrial sites in towns and cities.
He says: “You can drive through the West Midlands, north of Manchester, South Yorkshire. You see acre upon acre upon acre of brownfield sites undeveloped — while the developers are pressing endlessly to build in the countryside outside. It is stupid.”
The real tragedy is that allowing builders to develop pristine greenfield land around towns and cities means some urban areas are “left to die”, as has happened in Detroit, the once-mighty home of America’s motor car industry. Sir Simon says: “These mill towns of the north, which I still think many of them are very attractive places, require a lot of public investment, jobs and other development. But they are the sane places for people to live.
“It doesn’t make sense to put people in the Durham, Cheshire and Lancashire countryside, and simply leaving these cities to die. It happened in America and is giving America huge problems — we are creating Detroits in the north while we are eating up the countryside.
“Travel down the Don Valley in South Yorkshire. You just travel for mile upon mile of unused, brownfield, infrastructures land. Everything is there. The schools are there, the hospitals are there — the people are there. What do you do? You build housing estates in the Peak District. I can’t believe it. I think it is extraordinary.”
There is more than enough space in towns and cities to meet future housing demand, he says, because urban “density” in the UK’s cities is far lower than on the Continent. “The housing problems of Britain will not be solved in the countryside. That is my real message. The housing problems will be solved in the cities and there is absolutely nothing that this Government has done that promotes urban renewal.
“The density of cities is ridiculously low given the density of the British population is ridiculously low. London is a third of the density of Paris. Your average French settlement is seven storeys not three storeys.”
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) “was written by developers”, many of whom are large donors to the Conservative party. This was like putting the poachers in charge of the prison,” he says.
“The housebuilders are a very powerful lobby. Many of them support the Conservative party. I have got no problem about this — it has always been thus. But I have never known a Government so susceptible to that particularly form of lobbying.”
Sir Simon blames Nick Boles, the planning minister who took over after the NPPF was largely set in stone, for making matters worse. Mr Boles’s “aesthetic sense” is “non-existent” and he has no idea of how to protect the countryside, says Sir Simon. “Nick Boles’s form of planning is simply a fight everywhere, I don’t think he has any vision of what a protected countryside looks like.”
Hostility toward Mr Boles in the countryside is so great that the minister is now costing votes as traditional Conservatives switch to Ukip, which is now fighting the planning reforms.
“[Ukip leader] Nigel Farage regards Nick Boles as one of his best weapons. Where I have gone in my work in the National Trust, and where the ‘rule of Boles’, has applied, there ain’t many Tory voters left.”
He wonders aloud why the Trust was not given a greater say over the reforms: “There are so many things we could have done if we had been consulted. We had a complete raft of things we could have done. No interest shown at all.
“[Chancellor] George Osborne and Nick Boles wanted to do what the developers wanted and they thought that developers were jobs and growth — it was as naive as that. We are still picking up the pieces.” Sir Simon says the tax system could be altered to redress the balance and encourage developers to build on brownfield sites. He questions why builders have to pay 20 per cent VAT when they convert factories into flats, but newbuild sites are VAT-free. He says: “I am absolutely in no doubt that developed Britain could house all the new people apparently needing housing quite easily if the tax breaks, the planning and the will was there. There is no need to build on the countryside.”
Sir Simon also wants to bring back the rates system to replace council tax. “Personally I would go back to the rates and tax people by the amount of land and housing they are using, which I think is fair.” Sir Simon — who has long campaigned for planners to classify and grade rural land according to its worth — wants the NPPF to be redrawn to write in protections of rural views from wind farms and other rural monstrosities. Greater protections for countryside views “should be a part of the planning guidance. I honestly don’t think it was written by anybody who looks at a landscaped view.
“I read that document [the NPPF] through and I thought ‘did these people just go on holiday in Italy. Did they ever look at the English countryside? There was simply no sense of the aesthetic pleasure that people take from looking at views in the country.”
Sir Simon, 70, who stands down as chairman in October, has no regrets about fighting his war on planning on behalf of the Trust but clearly frets that his battle may have been vain. “Planning to me was core to our mission. We just had to say something about that because it was just such a real threat to everything. The Government would apparently be happy if all the villages of south-east England joined up.”
He says that he “genuinely does not think the British people want that”, and points out: “They have not been asked.”