The English countryside is sick. It can feel as though a day never passes without its green and pleasant land falling victim to the threat of windfarms, coalmines, solar arrays and housing estates. Boris Johnson seemed to want a turbine in every field. Liz Truss wanted “investment zones” even in protected areas. Rishi Sunak called for 300,000 new houses a year – until he didn’t.
This week the new environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, could not enlighten a Commons committee on her policy for farms, given the shambles of Brexit. Meanwhile, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, found himself capitulating to onshore windfarms one minute and a coalmine in Whitehaven the next. As for Labour’s Keir Starmer, he savaged Sunak for abandoning housing targets the same week as he said he would stop telling local councils what to do.
The root trouble is that the English countryside is not a renewable resource. Until the end of the last century there was a general presumption that “the country” was exclusively for farming, leisure and natural beauty. The creation of town and country planning was a much-vaunted reaction to inter-war sprawl.
Until recently, areas of acknowledged “natural beauty” were relatively safe. Not any more. According to their champion, the CPRE, every year since 2017-18 England has seen an average of 1,670 housing units approved in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) – representing an annual loss of 119 hectares of supposedly protected landscape. Development in the Cotswolds AONB, mostly of “executive homes”, has tripled in the past five years.
The vernacular growth of existing settlements that might be encouraged in France and Germany becomes in England a characterless splatter of pattern-book estates dumped in fields under the diktat of Whitehall inspectors. One consequence is the Natural History Museum declaring Britain “one of the most nature-depleted countries in Europe”, with 40m birds apparently vanishing from its skies since 1970.
As a result, a recent Ipsos poll showed 57% of people felt giving priority to “the views of local residents or protecting the countryside” should take precedence over meeting housing targets, with only a quarter believing housing numbers were the only priority. Yet public policy works in the opposite direction. There is no minister for the countryside, only for activities that wreck it. Lobbying for new houses is developer-led, with builders among the Tory party’s most generous donors. They crave open fields. All stories about a “housing crisis” are illustrated by new buildings. This is despite the fact that in 2020, new builds comprised a mere 7% of housing transactions in England.
Britain is among the most extravagant users of housing land in Europe. London has just a quarter the population density of Paris, which is why it sprawls ever outwards. A sensible housing policy would concentrate on correcting low densities and inefficient occupation, not least the thousands of empty properties. Meanwhile developer pressure has kept new buildings free of VAT, while it is levied in full on conversions or retrofitting. This discourages housing economy and sustainability. Likewise stamp duty is a disincentive to the most urgent need, which is for older people to downsize. Britain’s housing policy is distorted and corrupted, building houses for the rich and ignoring the poor.
The result is constant pressure to invade a now virtually defenceless countryside. In his previous incarnation at agriculture, the present planning secretary, Michael Gove, proposed a thoughtful replacement for the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP). His “environmental land management scheme” (Elms) shifted the emphasis of subsidy away from food production towards “public goods”, encouraging farmers to guard landscape and nature, grow hedges and forests, promote wildlife and nurture public awareness. A year of Downing Street shambles blew that good sense out of the water. Coffey this week hinted that things may as well remain as they were under the CAP’s “stewardship” subsidies. Another recipe for chaos.
There now marches over the horizon the Community Planning Alliance, with 500 local groups around the UK. It is part of a fierce reaction to Whitehall’s housing targets for local councils. Tory MPs said enough was enough, and Sunak was terrified into capitulation: targets are now merely “advisory”. It is ironic that at the very same time Sunak was caving in to an opposing lobby, that of other MPs wanting more wind turbines defacing the countryside, albeit “where local people agree”.
What is clear is that Britain has no way of defining and deciding which parts of the countryside should qualify for permanent protection and which can be open to varying degrees of development. In towns and cities, listed buildings and conservation areas are protected. Heritage is valued. Built-up historic Britain is probably safe for ever.
The same is not true of “historic” landscape. At least outside national parks, none is “listed”. AONBs, nature reserves, green belts, river valleys and pleasant stretches of fields and trees are ever more vulnerable to speculative developers. They buy land and gamble on a susceptible local council or change in government policy. Just as meadows were once sacrificed to out-of-town petrol stations and supermarkets – half of them now obsolete – so they are now vulnerable to the latest transient but irreversible intrusion.
The only solution is zoning, to declare stretches of countryside as inviolable, and others as safe from any but the most critical usage. Plenty of developable land would be left, both “green” and “brown”. For the most part, housebuilding should be confined within towns and cities, sustainable, “densifying” existing sites and using existing infrastructure. Rural Britain would be consigned to properly valuing what survives of its natural appearance, a legacy for future generations.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist