As part of Spear’s Save Britain’s Historic Landscape campaign, William Cash asks what the countryside is for and how we can protect it from energy companies and politicians
ARISTOCRATS, FARMERS AND developers may own 40 million acres of England’s green and pleasant land — but who owns our landscape? That is the key question that needs answering as the national planning debate — Cameron vs the countryside — continues to play out, with increasing numbers of Tory voters now saying they will not do so again unless the Coalition modifies its de facto presumption in favour of economic development, trumping environmental and social concerns.
Yet the government’s controversial policy — including its championing of the High Speed 2 train link which will slice through the Chilterns — is threatening to destroy the unique character of English rural life. We are not convinced the country can afford such a project right now — or that anybody will be able to afford to travel on the new HS2 trains, resulting, as we have seen with the new high-speed line to Ashford in Kent, in empty carriages and a train that doesn’t stop anywhere to benefit local communities. The Spear’s Save Our Historic Landscape campaign is vociferously drawing attention to this.
Wouldn’t it be better to stimulate growth by investing in areas of the economy — such as heritage tourism — that are actually growing? Instead of trying to compete with the Germans, French and Italians at what they do well (because of their huge state subsidies), why don’t we focus on we do best? This includes protecting the countryside and what are known as ‘heritage assets’, which bring in £24 billion a year and which are under threat because the draft National Planning Policy Framework removes reference to Planning Policy Statement 5, which helps to protect our heritage.
So how do we balance preserving the Arcadia of the English countryside with the challenges of more housing, better transport and climate change? With the Localism Bill approaching the statute books, and 60 years of planning policy being ripped up, the planning, transport and wind energy debates are going to rock the Coalition.
What has been hardly discussed in recent weeks is the question of a community’s right to enjoy a landscape. At the core of the problem has been a lack of debate on what the countryside is actually for. Broadly speaking, the UK is 60 million acres in size, of which 41 million acres are designated agricultural land, 15 million are not suitable for farming — forests, rivers, moors and mountains — and owned by institutions such as the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence, and four million are the urban plot, the densely congested land on which most of the 61 million people of these islands live.
As the New Statesman has revealed, 69 per cent of the acreage of Britain is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. That is, 158,000 families own 41 million acres of land, while 24 million families live on the four million acres of the urban plot. No other country in Europe, apart from Spain, has such an unequal concentration of land ownership.
For developers and landowners, land is a commodity to be exploited for maximum commercial profit. For villagers, commuters from England’s heartlands and those who choose to live and set up small businesses in the countryside, the countryside and ‘landscape’ are something sacrosanct to be enjoyed. The idea of rural Arcadia is inexorably tied up with our sense of national identity, yet it is also an tremendously economically productive place.
PART OF THE problem is psychological. The British people do not like being bullied into submission without a fair vote, especially when it comes to enjoying the beauty of our natural skyline or unspoilt countryside. The sky has always been sacred in England — much like common land before the enclosure system was introduced by landowners that robbed rural villagers of their right to plough village land and meadows.
The landscape used to be considered a community asset that nobody owned. No more. Suddenly developers and salesmen think (especially if they have donated to the Tory party) they own our landscape and that they have the right to stick up clusters of depressing housing blocks, a multi-storey business park, a new retail park, a new abattoir, or a farm of Goliath-like turbines — not to mention decimating local lanes, hedgerows and bridle-paths in their industrial construction — that will ruin what we most cherish and love about our ancient, largely pristine scenery around England.
I am feeling this acutely as I have recently found myself embroiled in the planning reform debate — and the absurdity of government’s claims that the reforms equal real ‘localism’ — ever since an unwanted planning proposal landed on my doorstep. I live at Upton Cressett, near Bridgnorth in Shropshire, in a unspoilt hamlet where an unsightly wind turbine has been proposed that will ruin the very heartland of the historic landscape which inspired AE Housman, Vaughn Williams and PG Wodehouse.
Our ancient parish of Morville has no shops, or even a post office — just the Acton Arms pub. For centuries the centre of village life has been based around Morville Hall and its church. Set in historic parkland at the bottom of a steep hill, known as Meadowley Bank, I regularly walk up and down this hill from my home at Upton Cressett, following a medieval path through the ancient woods. When you get to the crest of Meadowley at the top and emerge on the famous Jack Mytton Way — Shropshire’s flagship tourist trail — you can look out across much of the county.
The proposals could turn south Shropshire — following on from the desecration of once-beautiful Montgomeryshire — into what is grimly designated a ‘wind turbine landscape’. Our local campaign group recently invited our Tory MP, Philip Dunne, over to see the site for himself. As a dozen of us — along with my father Bill Cash MP, an outspoken critic of wind farm planning — sat around the dining room table at Upton Cressett eating cake and being polite, I couldn’t help feeling that (although it wasn’t said) the same thought was going through all our minds: what on earth are we doing here pleading with our own elected Tory MP to defend one of England’s most famous landscapes of the Shropshire Hills from policies championed by a Tory-led government?
Thankfully Philip Dunne has come out strongly against the proposal, and is being an excellent local MP in alerting the local council to how this is a test case for the whole of Shropshire, a county that relies on tourism as an important part of its economy (eleven million visitors a year, contributing 6 per cent of the local economy and 8,000 jobs).
There is a lack of local democracy at work under the new planning guidelines. On 13 September, wind farm planning experts and scientists met at Nunsmere Hall, near Northwich in Cheshire, for a special conference to discuss the iniquities of the new system that allows local council planning decisions to be overturned at appeal by a single government appointed inspector.
I attended the conference, which was held in pouring rain, with the marquee only just able to withstand the elements. When top planning barrister Sasha White took to the stage — actually the hotel dance-floor — with his microphone in hand, he began by saying: ‘Having been a planning lawyer for twenty years — working for both developers and fighting planners on appeal representing local villagers — the first thing to say is that the planning system is not only broken or just stacked against local communities but it is worse. The place you start from today in any planning appeal is “you are going to lose”.’
Wind farm planning is indeed the ‘poison’ in the system, according to Chris Heaton-Harris, MP for Daventry, another outspoken Tory who is leading a group of concerned colleagues who want Cameron to revise the draft planning reforms. Daventry has become a wind farm planning hotspot, thanks to a feeding frenzy of planning applications (mainly due to close proximity to the National Grid, making the connections cheaper than in more suitable desolate landscape areas), despite the land being unsuitable for wind farming.
A disturbing document by local campaigners based on planning application information provided by Daventry District Council in June 2011 shows the current total of turbines threatening the local landscape around the village of Crick is up from 68 reported on 27 January to 102 turbines just six months later — and it is expected to increase further.
Photograph by David Rookwood
WHILE I WELCOME the debate about affordable social housing — and no-one is suggesting that no green part of the country must ever be touched — it has shifted the debate away from wind farms and the fact that the government have signed up to legally binding targets for wind energy and are now required by the EU to build thousands of wind turbines without any real limitations — other than highly subjective views by a planning inspector on what is a ‘historic setting’.
There are crazy and unattainable new carbon emission targets that Chris Huhne and George Osborne have signed up to (initiated by John Prescott) that everybody knows are impossible to achieve. Such quotas may be useful for posturing on the eco-stage at Davos or other summit meetings but they serve no tangible benefit in economic terms.
Current draft plans allow wind turbines, often twice the size of Nelson’s column, to be stuck up as close as 500 metres from Grade I houses. A particularly good example of this is the absurd story of Kimbolton Castle, designed by no less than Vanbrugh (the architect of Blenheim Palace) and Hawksmoor, which boasts four Grade I facades, and was a former royal palace of Katherine of Aragon.
At the Kimbolton Castle public inquiry I attended, I was shocked to hear an ‘expert’ in cultural heritage — paid by the Broadview Energy company for his views — describe the aesthetic harm that would be done by seven menacing turbines to the four Grade 1 facades as being of ‘moderate significance’. This sort of patronising and culturally blind arrogance could be the death of England.
Such heritage is not owned by developers or even the trustees of Kimbolton School, which now owns Kimbolton Castle, but is rather part of the community landscape. The reason that so many people — from all parties — are fighting hard to save our landscape is that around 75 per cent of planning applications for wind farms around the country are currently being rejected by regional councils. That is because local feeling is so strongly opposed to them.
Another typical and disturbing wind farm proposal affecting a village so small that it looks as if they may well have been targeted precisely for their size is the historic village of Hill (population 100), just a few miles from Berkeley Castle (which also has its own, even nearer, wind farm turbine proposals threatening one of England’s oldest private castles). The proposed development is just 700 metres from the home of Alexandra Jenner-Fust, who was brought up in the village of Hill, where her family live in the historic Hill Court, adjacent to a 12th-century church.
She recently moved with her husband and young family from London back to the countryside where she was brought up and enjoyed the open spaces and beautiful countryside — only to find that this sense of freedom is now threatened by the unwanted imposition of giant wind turbines close to her house. ‘I will never be able to go outside and avoid them,’ she says. ‘They will always be there. I feel violated. It is totally inappropriate both in scale and location.’
We don’t like being told something is a ‘community project’ when it is a commercial project of intangible benefit to anybody other than the outside developers. When Sharenergy — the wind energy company behind the development near me — did a presentation at the local Chetton village hall, the presenter couldn’t correctly pinpoint where Meadowley was on the Ordnance Survey map much to the amazement of local villagers. ‘He was pointing to a ridge that was three miles from Meadowley,’ said a witness.
DURING OUR INDIAN summer evenings I often walked along this ancient ridge at Meadowley where the proposed wind turbines will desecrate the local landscape. From the top of the ridge, walking through golden wheat fields so high that my Labrador had to jump up for air every few yards, I could clearly see the entire of Aldenham Park, in Morville, the ancestral home of the Acton family, where the famous 19th century historian Lord Acton used to live.
Acton may not be widely read today in schools, and is chiefly remembered for his famous quote, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ but his influence as a liberal thinker and historian remains significant, in particular his lectures on liberty, freedom and democracy. These were delivered not to an august gathering of the Royal Society in London or a great lecture hall at Cambridge, where he later became Regius Professor of Modern History, but rather at the more humble Bridgnorth Institute in my local market town.
Acton, who was briefly the Liberal MP for Bridgnorth in the 1860s, was a close confidant of Gladstone, who regarded him as his intellectual superior. As the Localism Bill approaches the statute books in the autumn, with worrying implications for local democracy and social justice that attend a close reading of the Bill, Acton’s lectures are well worth re-reading again today.
In ‘The history of freedom in antiquity’, which was delivered to the Bridgnorth Institute on 26 February 1877, Acton outlines with prescience the various sources of governmental power, the extent and limits of governmental power, and his views on the right to exercise such power. He argues that democracy is no guarantee of liberty. In the absence of any moral code that caps the extent of governmental power, even a democracy will tend to slide towards absolutism. The only thing that can protect a mature democracy, argues Acton cogently and wisely, is civil power which operates under the protection of ‘conscience’.
This idea of a national conscience may seem anachronistic today. But I suspect there will be more than the pricking of such a national conscience if the government — in the name of local democracy, under the auspices of the Localism Bill — continues its policy of full-scale desecration of the English countryside with sprawling business parks, ill-placed housing developments and forests of wind turbines turning the most beautiful parts of England into a terrifying landscape.
ONE REASON THAT this policy is so misplaced — and seems so clearly written by urban politicians — is that retaining the distinctive beauty and character of rural life is crucial to regional economic growth. The picture is the same across the UK, but my home region of the Midlands is a good example.
While market towns and cities around me like Bridgnorth, Wolverhampton and Birmingham need to embrace growth (ie progressive planning), it also needs to be remembered that the reason so many businesses, investors and entrepreneurs are relocating to Shropshire and innovative technology based towns like Telford is that these very people — the socially mobile, innovative and enterprising — choose to live in pretty villages, market towns and landscapes precisely because they have retained their unique historic character.
Local regional economic growth and a distinctive character of rural life go together, and cannot be severed. This unspoilt and much envied quality of life — the pages of Country Life have raised this peculiarly English affection for the idyll of rural escape into an art form — is enjoyed by the rural community, many of whom have earned the right to a peaceful and civilised life in a historic village after years of slog, school fees and hard work in towns and cities.
All these factors — with nobody claiming to own the sky, rather like in the Caribbean where the beaches of even the most exclusive resorts are communally owned and free for everybody to enjoy — combine to make an important contribution to a thriving local economy.
William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spear’s
To receive more details on Spear’s Save Britain’s Historic Landscape Campaign, email Emily Rookwood: firstname.lastname@example.org