The bull in the rural china shop

CountryLife460

A Country Life article – 5 Nov 2014

Opinion

Simon Jenkins

 Simon Jenkins

As he steps down after six years as chairman of the National Trust, Simon Jenkins inveighs against the chaos that has engulfed our planning system

IN January 2012, David Cameron went on the BBC’s Countryfile to pledge that he ‘would no more put [the countryside] at risk than I would put at risk my own family’. There would be no change to green belts and no estates ‘plonked down’ next to villages. The Prime Minister wanted to ‘give communities much more say, much more control’ over what happened to their surroundings.

The saddest aspect of my otherwise exhilarating years chairing the National Trust has been to watch Mr. Cameron’s promises disintegrate. I cannot recall a government so hostile to England’s landscape since the birth of rural planning in the 1940s. By fits and starts, we used to improve our protection of rural England. Under the Coalition, it has got worse.

Every journey I have taken across the countryside has witnessed an eruption of warehouses, turbines, advertisement hoardings and ill-sited developments, with no evidence of attention to their planning and location. England is getting like Portugal, Ireland and southern Italy. The birthplace of the noble profession of town-and-country planning has become its morgue.

This has not gone unnoticed. In the past five years, my desk at the Trust has been besieged with requests for ‘third party’ assistance against unsightly planning applications. The number of cases has risen from a mere handful to more than 400 a year, swamping our capacity to respond. I see pleas from Lincoln, Warwick, Salisbury, Winchester, Tewkesbury, Telford, Durham, Bruton, Stow, Thaxted, Saxmundham, Glastonbury, Chipping Campden Ashford, Tetbury, Sandbach, Bourton-on-the-Water, Roseberry Topping, Mapperton and dozens of others.

In each case, a landowner or developer cites utterances by Eric Pickles and the Chancellor, George Osborne, against a local plan or local wishes. I cannot believe that Mr Cameron meant places—many of which are jewels of England’s genius for rural settlement—to be overrun by off-the-shelf  ‘volume housing’ or overlooked .þy wind turbines. Nor was he just unleashing development—he was subsidising it. One landowner was expecting 2.5 million a year for erecting turbines on his stretch of Dorset hillside. It is as if the county was indistinguishable from the Arizonan desert.

When I first encountered the conservation movement, it was generally accepted that England’s landscape was typified by a clear distinction between town and country, not just to preserve green space, but as an aesthetic virtue in its own right. Settlements will always grow, but they should do so with respect for their existing shape, materials and appearance. Views matter. Community cohesion matters. What W. G. Hoskins, the historian of England’s landscape, called ‘the quiet solitudes, the common lands..refreshment and sanctuary from meaningless movement’ matters.

The birthplace of the noble profession of town-and-country planning has become its morgue

Not now. Politicians who holiday abroad—who would doubtless protest development of their French or Italian hideaways—seem no longer aware of England’s subtle rural personality. I cannot recall a party leader in recent times who spoke in favour of rural beauty. It’s small wonder that UKIP’s Nigel Farage has gone for the countryside vote. He called the prodeveloper planning minister Nick Boles his ‘recruiting sergeant’.

For the Trust, this came to a head in 2011 in the battle over the new planning framework. A sound ambition to update planning regulation became a Wild West of industry lobbying. Inflexible land-release targets were irrespective of environment Green belts and areas of bealy—even, at one point, national up for grabs. Curbs on sprawl lifted. The bull was in the china shop. Tnustš statutory mission was clear to save *ces of historic interest and natural teaüty ftxthe nation for all time. The reforms were a blatant challenge to that mission. Members and the wider public demanded we do something and we did, raising petitions, lobbying and protesting. The power of the developer lobby was felt at every turn, reflected in ministerial attacks on the Trust as ‘nimbyish’ and ‘anti-growth’.

The Trust and its allies won some easement, notably in favour of brownfield building, in defence of green belts and against on-shore wind turbines. But the rural planning system remains in chaos as the old spatial sarzegies were torn up and farmers and