Whatever you think of CPREs specific line you have to agree that our current generation of politicians don’t share the planning visions of their post-war predecesssors.
Today is the centenary of Laurie Lee’s birth and a fitting moment to reflect on Cider with Rosie’s evocation of an England “which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life”. Today, many feel the gigantic upheaval he witnessed is being followed by another, which is producing the biggest changes to the countryside within our living memories.
It is a defining moment, crystallised by a threat that faces Lee’s countryside. Even as I write this, government planning inspectors are deciding whether to allow developers to build a housing estate in the green fields of the Slad Valley where the book was set. This is despite the local council’s rejection of the plans. Similar things are happening all over the country.
David Cameron recently visited the valley and said he understood the book’s “wonderful links with this very special part of the world”. But on the subject of the proposed development, the prime minister observed: “New houses have to be built so we have to make choices about where they will go.”
He is right: there is a choice. We need to build more homes, but our politicians are failing to show the vision and ambition of their predecessors – the men and women who acted to protect our commons, national parks, green belts and footpaths.
I understand that MPs are inevitably pulled towards the immediate wishes of voters concerned about economic growth. But politicians have always been beset by day-to-day challenges, not least the postwar governments, which faced huge problems of reconstruction but still managed to introduce protection for landscapes, nature and heritage.
We need to recapture some of that inclusive, progressive and enlightened thinking. It’s not an alternative to sound economic and social policy; rather, it can be the foundation of such things.
Our democratic, locally led planning system was part of the great postwar settlement for the countryside – together with national parks and green belts – but it has been steadily eroded by recent governments. To address the problems the country faces, we will need more land-use planning, not less.
There are enough brownfield sites in England to accommodate 1.5m homes close to jobs, services and infrastructure. We must make these homes affordable, without compromising on quality.
Developing disused sites will both improve our towns and cities, and help us safeguard the countryside. This matters. Contact with the natural world is not just a pleasure, it’s a necessity, and a part of what makes us who we are.
Englishness is tricky to define, not least because it tends to shun large gestures and rhetorical flourishes. But traditional attitudes, such as pride in our countryside, exist in a wonderful, big melting pot of Englishness, together with our pride in absorbing new cultures and our refusal to make Englishness an issue of race or birthplace.
Satish Kumar, Benjamin Zephaniah, Marina Lewycka and Anish Kapoor have all signed the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s “save our countryside” charter. But too many politicians lack the courage to stand up for the countryside. That is a shame.
As we approach the general election next May, we should also give thought to the big, over-arching questions. How do we want to live? What sort of country do we want to live in? We should be thinking of houses as homes not investments, of other marks of national progress than mere economic growth, and of the importance to everyone’s life of beauty and wellbeing.
The trick is to make the case for safeguarding the best of the past while allowing for progress and improvement. Rapid change threatens the sense of self, but successful cultures have always embraced the future. At the same time, we need to insist that some things are sacred, and the countryside is one of the most precious of all.