IIt would be easy to imagine that the English countryside is a charming place. Everyone has been talking about discovering the wonder of nature during the confinement and there are constant reports of crowds moving from towns and cities to more pastoral places.
However, in many ways the opposite is true. Look around you and you will find local action groups protesting, petitioning, and even praying to save precious stretches of the countryside from destruction. If you are one of the fugitives of the city, I would check that your new view is not intended for development.
We have already seen an orgy of eco-vandalism as a result of the HS2 railway project: heartbreaking images of destroyed nature reserves, magnificent old trees felled and millenary razed hedges. But HS2 is just one in a vast catalog of destructive developments. In Greater Manchester, for example, Carrington Moss Friends They are fighting a massive housing project planned in a greenbelt that is also a beautiful bog. Meanwhile, there are protests across the country against the government’s wave of road construction. the Link Wensum in Norfolk; the Stonehenge tunnel; the Lower Thames crossing; and main roads in sensitive open country in Lancashire, to name just a few.
Kent is especially hard hit, not just by Brexit truck parks. Housing developments are everywhere, Graveney Swamps have been designated for industrialization, and now another ecologically important swamp in Swanscombe is destined for a vast theme park billed as “The UK’s Answer to Disney World”.
The protest groups fighting these developments are generally made up of inexperienced, previously apolitical, locals. Out of necessity, they fight separate local campaigns. But the current level of destructive development is a national problem that requires a national response. Together these developments are changing the character of the countryside towards urban sprawl. They are causing irreversible damage to wildlife.
What allows this destruction is the national planning system, which should protect local communities, but now disempowers them. Planning has been hijacked by two doctrines. One is that pouring cement will get us out of the recession, the other is that there is a general housing crisis rather than an affordability crisis. Local challenges to these views are squashed as mere Nimbyism.
Since the coalition government introduced the national planning policy framework in 2012 the planning system has increasingly favored developers. That legislation insisted that city councils set housing targets, but they lacked the land to meet those numbers. Local authorities were forced to redefine green belt areas as “available for development.” It was the beginning of a land grab. The Campaign to Protect the States of Rural England (in 2018 The state of the green belt report) that since 2013 “huge amounts of new lands designated as green belts have been released or included in local council plans.”
Robert Jenrick’s so-called planning “reforms” now go much further. Even after a secondary rebellion and a rethinking of the algorithm used to calculate housing targets, the housing secretary still wants to impose a controversial American zoning system along with a pro-development presumption. The proposals are terribly undemocratic. Housing targets will be imposed by the central government and local contributions will be marginalized. However, the housing developments defended by Jenrick do nothing to increase the number of affordable housing. The developers do not want to build cheap houses for beginners. They prefer low-density, five-bedroom homes, hence the hunger for brand-new land, especially those near beautiful locations, which are vastly more profitable. Meanwhile, developers avoid available industrial sites that CPRE estimates could support the construction of 1 million new homes.
The attack by the National Infrastructure Commission on local democracy is even more flagrant. The NIC is truly a wrecking ball for the field. Next to HS2, think of Minsmere, the crown jewel of the RSPB, threatened by Sizewell C, or the proposed million houses in “the Oxford-Cambridge arc”, most of which would be in the green belt. And let’s not forget Guston Truck Park, dumped on unsuspecting Dover residents. Local opposition is practically irrelevant at NIC hearings. I know this first-hand after having attended one of those investigations where some of the developers present openly mocked the local experts. It felt like a sham of democracy.
Boris Johnson sometimes claims to care about biodiversity and talks about supporting nature’s recovery and protecting green belts, rambling once on families. have a picnic in “wild belts” amidst a flourishing flora and fauna. But he also loves donning helmets for photos, promoting “build, build, build” and say he won’t let “merman counters” get in his way. If Johnson “green” were real, he would insist that Robert Jenrick consider planning alongside environmental ambitions. And it would pass the long overdue environmental bill that could provide a framework for joint thinking on the environment. Instead, he presides over a tsunami of destruction.
There are flashes of a national comeback. The Nationally coordinated Transportation Action Network just challenged Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps for rejecting the environmental impact assessment in his highway construction policy. And ERCP is coordinating other green groups to present a democratically and ecologically conscious vision of what planning could do in a post-pandemic world. Local groups fighting their solitary battles need this national cooperation for the fight against eco-vandalism by conservatives to be successful; we need it before it’s too late.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism