Greg Clark's Chance to Save the Countryside

Greg Clark is an intelligent minister. Which is why he should listen to Sir Andrew Motion and David Hockney before making his final revisions to the NPPF.

Greg Clark's Chance to Save the Countryside

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending a party thrown by the CPRE at the Philip Mould gallery in Mayfair to celebrate the English countryside. The CPRE - along with the Spear’s ‘Save Britain’s Historic Landscape’ campaign - have been in the very front trenches (along with the National Trust) of the national debate over the government’s draft planning reforms (NPPF) which is feared will greatly harm both heritage and the countryside through a new ‘presumption in favour of development’. We at Spear’s, along with Shaun Spiers, CEO of the CPRE – no relation except in spirit – are all awaiting the imminent publication of the government’s new re-drafted NPPF.

It is hoped that Greg Clark and his team of advisors at the DCLG will make the necessary revisions to the NPPF that this country so richly deserves and needs. If Clark has listened to the voices of reason in the national debate, and sufficiently protects the beauties of the English countryside and our heritage - as he has repeatedly assured the British public he will – then the CPRE will be very largely to thank, even if it was necessary to spill ministerial blood on the lawn in the early stages of the campaign when tempers flared up and the CPRE and the National Trust were accused of being a bunch of pinkos under the bed. Shaun Spiers was singled out as a Bolshevik simply because he was once a Labour MEP.

There was nothing remotely Trotsky-esque about the civilised champagne party in Mayfair, co-hosted by Philip Mould, which drew such guests as Sebastian Faulks, and his wife Veronica, Kate Adie, Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, Simon Thurley, CEO of English Heritage, Philip Blond, the political thinker and head of ResPublica, as well as CPRE president Bill Bryson and former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion.

Part of the reason for the party was to announce the hand-over of the presidency from Bryson to Motion, and the speeches were as erudite as one might expect, with Philip Mould’s contribution standing out as the ‘alpha plus’ speech. He spoke eloquently without notes about the importance of ‘memory’ to the English landscape (much as Sir Roy Strong has argued in ‘Visions of England’ that the idea of English identity is rooted in our imaginations).

In Andrew Marr's BBC profile of David Hockney last night, in which England's greatest painter explained why he has always been so drawn to landscape - as opposed to architeture - as his subject, Hockney re-iterated Mould's very point when he said: 'I paint from memory. We always see from memory, and every person always sees the world a little differently. We are all on our own'. In the context of the British countryside, which he thinks is sacred and - to use Morris's memorable phrase - 'unapproachable in its beauty' - Hockney left the audience in no doubt where he stands on protecting the historic English countryside (in his case around Bridlington in North Yorkshire) from industrialization from wind turbines, or 'inappropriate' planning development. 'Putting something in a landscape alters it' was Hockney's retort to Marr when asked about his fears for the countryside. I only hope Greg Clark was watching.

Philip Mould, in his speech at the CPRE party, spoke of how the very best painters (he fortunately had a small Gainsborough on hand to illustrate his point, but could as easily have made his point with one of Hockney's magisterial 'Bigger Canyon' paintings from 1988) drew on the power of memory as the creative well to produce their inspirational landscapes. One of my favourite Hockneys, perfectly executing this theme of memory mixing with exuberant colour and life-affirming exuberance is Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio, 1980, acrylic on canvas, in which Hockney drew on his memory of the hundreds of times he had driven along the top of LA's Mulholland Drive (the road that snakes around the top of the Hollywood Hills) to get to his studio in Malibu, where he also had a small house.

When I lived in LA in the 90s, I lived next-door to David on Woodrow Wilson Drive (Hockney sold the house a few years ago to a close friend) and I used to see him for dinner or pop around to his studio, where he always kept some decent white wine in the fridge and a good supply of cigarettes (and other tobacco forms). In the Marr film, Hockney is asked why he prefers to paint from memory and sketches rather than photographs (which he also uses but does not rely on), and David makes the point that memory is itself a form of creation, or re-creation. David no more had to rely on photographs to paint The Road to the Studio (he had two studios in LA, one in Malibu and another larger one beside his Hollywood Hills house) than he did 'Nichols Canyon Road', another Hollywood Hills road that anybody living on Woodrow Wilson Drive would have used on an almost daily basis to cut down through the canyon down and out onto Sunset into LA.


 
David Hockney, Mulholland Drive: The road to the studio (1980)
 
As the critic Christopher Ricks once wrote in a long review he wrote of Norman Mailer's 1980 Pulitzer prize winning 'faction' novel. The Executioner's Song, about the life and execution of convicted American murderer Gilmore, the act of memory is itself an act of imagination.  To recall from the well of memory is to imagine; and imagination is what makes the artist unique, and who he is. This was relevant to the Executioner's Song as Mailer relied on hundreds of hours of taped recordings with Mailer to recreate his life - from memory, in his jail cell - in a way that gave the jagged and broken fragments of memory a coherent, artistically coherent picture.  Only an artist can weave such a picture from the broken shells left behind on the beach; and only the act of creation - and memory - allows him to do so.

Another example in point is Rubens's masterful 1636 landscape painting, A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, (National Gallery) which Philip Mould recently chose as his 'favourite painting' for a feature in Country Life. In the painting, Rubens seems to have escaped from the world of trade, court, commissions, ambition and fettle, to create his very own Arcadia with a shimmering natural landscape - no windmills in sight, I am glad to report - that looks out over the autumnal countryside a Het Steen in Holland, his country manor and his studio, where he just got on with his work until he died - living with his second wife.


 
Rubens, A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (1636)
 
The idea of 'Arcadia' in art and landscape is not only about memory; it is almost always about loss - look at Poussin's famous painting 'The Arcadian Shepherds' in the Louvre with its Et In Arcadia Ego inscription (also used in Brideshead Revisted) - 'I too have lived in Arcadia ' - on the tomb as the shepherds mourn for the bliss of a life lived in the rural 'arcadia' of the countryside. To Poussin, the only full life, or the only real life, was a life that was embraced the bliss and beauty of the countryside (the Greek countryside was called Arcadia) as well as that of the town. In many ways, this aesthetic philosophy was what underpinned the essential thinking behind the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which allowed for a clear separation between Town and Country and was largely a result of tenacious campaigning by the CPRE.

Mould worried that the government’s current ‘direction of traffic’ – to use a planning phrase that the planning inspectorate like to use themselves – in regards to planning reforms, would rob his young son’s generation from being able to enjoy the shared memory of a historic landscape, as the countryside is so threatened with development and change. Mould told of a trip he had made with his son to an ancient wood (in Norfolk, I think) where Gainsborough had stood for hours to wait for the right light to paint a picture and Mould (ever the art sleuth) wanted to see if he could find the exact spot where Gainsborough had stood to paint the picture several hundred years ago. He found the spot. Although many of the trees had vanished, it was still almost unchanged and Philip spoke of how he felt almost a sense of artistic communion with Gainsborough – something that he fears could be lost forever if the developers are allowed to get their way in the NPPF.

Thankfully the CPRE have no intention of allowing that to happen. Although Sir Andrew is not actually stepping into Bill Bryson’s president’s boots until June, it was a clever idea to announce Sir Andrew’s appointment now – just a few weeks before the revised NPPF is published. At the outbreak of NPPF hostilities, the CPRE and National Trust were accused of being ‘selfish nihilists’ by senior Coalition planning ministers. You can call Sir Andrew many things but ‘selfish nihilist’ is not an insult that will ever stick. The truth is that it is the Barratt home and Taylor Wimpey developers, along with certain (but not all) metropolitan government ministers – egged on by the Treasury – who are the aesthetic and cultural philistines.

I was delighted to hear at the party from Philip Blond, head of ResPublica, that Greg Clark (who pulled out of being the keynote speaker at the National Trust AGM) has been invited to give a speech about ‘Beauty’, and has accepted. Greg Clark is a sensitive and intelligent politician – as well as being a doctor of philosophy – and I can only hope that writing the speech abut the philosophy of aesthetics, and the importance of beauty to the environment, is also born out in his re-drafting of the NPPF.

The CPRE quite like a good scrap. Under Sir Patrick Abercrombie, who founded the CPRE in 1926, the organization was set up originally to fight ribbon development. Sir Patrick also argued the case for specially protected areas of England’s most iconic countryside, and for establishing up Green Belts to preserve the character of towns and give townies the opportunity to easily enjoy the nearby countryside (Access to the Countryside Act 1949). Fighting the NPPF is exactly in this tradition and what the body was invented to campaign against.

The CPRE believe – rightly in my view - that the English countryside is ‘a vital but undervalued environmental, economic and social asset to the nation’. They aim to 'highlight threats and promote positive solutions'. I urge any Spear’s financier or banker who is abut to get their bonus to donate to the CPRE as they – critically –only use their own research to lobby the public and government. And high quality original research is expensive. Earlier this month, a specially commissioned CPRE report – widely published across the media - warned that an area in England which equates to an area almost three-and-a-half times the size of Wales was at risk from the reforms.

Another lyrical and eloquent, albeit brief, speech came from Sir Andrew Motion himself as he was formally unveiled as the next president of the Campaign of Protect Rural England. Although he said he was saving his powder for his speech at the AGM in June, the former poet laureate made clear his concerns about Government reforms to planning rules. ‘'When Government planning reform could place two thirds of rural England at the mercy of a presumption in favour of development, this is a critical moment for the countryside and for anyone who wants a say over what happens to their community and their surroundings’.

Shaun Spiers, the CPRE’s chief executive, added: ‘The countryside he is talking about is the local countryside on people’s doorstep which is most threatened by the National Planning Policy Framework’.

Appointing Sir Andrew is an inspired move and should leave Greg Clark in no doubt who the real enemy of the beauties of the countryside and heritage are in this now long running national debate. Since Greg is anything but a cultural or aesthetic philistine himself, I hope he will take on board the following words of Motion who said that much of his work (like that of Ted Hughes) was drawn from a ‘passion’ for the English countryside, the inspiration he draws from its beauty and tranquillity, and how the countryside is a national asset that should be accessible to everyone.

‘To be proposed for this role is a mixture of joy, honour and a little trepidation. But if CPRE members will have me, then I am fully prepared to stand up for the countryside alongside them’.

Clark looks like a ‘Birthday Letters’ sort of guy; the sort of Cambridge man who may have even seen the manuscript of the Four Quartets that is kept in the Pepys Library at Magdalene, Cambridge. Should the re-draft be tempered to suit the sharp Top Man suits of the developers like Taylor Wimpey who paid for the drinks and the canapés at the platform they hosted for you at the Tory conference, rather than those voters (like the over four million CPRE and National Trust members) who believe the countryside and our heritage is what makes Britain GREAT, then you may just end up being immortalized in verse as The Man Who Ruined England.

Mr Clark is expected to announce his revised changes to the planning rules next month.