How do we balance the Arcadia of the English countryside with more housing, better transport and climate control?
Aristocrats, farmers and developers may own the 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 vote Tory again unless the Coalition modifies its ‘de facto’ yes presumption in favour of business development which ministers claim is essential to bolster economic growth.
At 12.30pm on Friday, in the Oxfordshire Museum in the pretty Cotswold village of Woodstock, the HQ of Cameron’s very own Tory constituency, where he has a home, close to the rolling parks and architectural beauty of Blenheim Palace, a World Heritage site, I will be debating this question as part of a talk at the Woodstock Literary Festival entitled Saving Arcadia.
How do we balance preserving the Arcadia of the English countryside with the challenges of more housing, better transport and climate control? With the Localism Bill approaching, and 60 years of planning policy being ripped up in favour of the bulldozers being called in to develop across green land, the planning and wind energy debate look set to become two of the most controversial issues of the Coalition government. But what has been hardly discussed in recent weeks is the question of community rights to enjoy a landscape.
At the core of the problem has been a lack of debate on what is the countryside actually for. For developers and landowners, land is a commodity to be exploited for maximum commercial profit. For villagers, commuters from England’s green and pleasant villages and those who choose to live and set up small businesses in the countryside, the countryside and ‘landscape’ is something sacrosanct to be enjoyed.
This seemingly contradictory sense of what the countryside is really for – economic growth or enjoyment – is now causing deep social divisions and anger within the Tory party as once harmonious rural villages and local communities are being torn apart as people rally around try to defend themselves against an encroaching and unwanted plague of planning applications.
How ironic then that when David Cameron made his New Year’s speech on 2 January 2010 to the residents of Woodstock from the stage of the Oxford School of Drama, a body which champions Shakespeare and our classical literary heritage, he said that his government would ‘redistribute power from the political elite to the man and woman in the street’, and added: ‘We can't go on with the old style of politics that divides our country instead of uniting it.'
The opposite has happened. Not only in his own party, his own constituency but across the country. The planning reforms (which we are now told were funded and drafted by developers like Taylor Wimpey) are causing an outbreak of civil war in the shires, with farmers, local businesses and developers being pitted against villagers and councillors – with families being torn apart as many have to dig deep into their pockets and savings (what they have left) in order to defend themselves from a planning system that the government wants stacked in favour of ‘development’.