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As clear as mud

The failure of the government to clarify key parts of its new planning policy for the countryside is bad for the land, the developers, local people and the farming industry, writes Tom Oliver

Wednesday August 11, 2004
The Guardian

The future of the countryside is profoundly uncertain. Anyone who cares for it knows that there are serious problems to address. These include the urgent need to maintain a clear distinction between town and countryside, to avoid creeping suburbia and the gradual pock-marking of the landscape that has so ruined large swaths of the United States and many European countries.

We need to retain good, versatile agricultural land for food (and now energy) production in the long term, as well as the farming skills to manage the landscape. We should provide permanently affordable housing for those who genuinely need it in rural settlements. We should be anticipating the effects of climate change on habitats and agriculture, and using planning to help in this urgent but immensely difficult task.

So what has the government done about these things? Last week it published its long-awaited planning policy for the countryside. Given the many good things that could have been achieved in this statement, it was mystifying that the minister dwelt on his personal predilection for posh new houses in open countryside. For a Labour administration, that was embarrassing, as well as very bad news for our increasingly pressured open countryside. But the policy's real objectives were disturbingly unclear.

Take the crucial issue of keeping the countryside intact. While the policy lists as one of its objectives "continued protection of the open countryside for the benefit of all", the government also says that new house building should be strictly controlled "away from existing settlements or from areas allocated for housing in development plans". What exactly does that mean? Just how far away is away?

Up and down the land, developers, planning committees and local people will all soon be haggling over what does or does not constitute "away from an existing settlement". This cocktail of uncertainty that is being served up to local authorities benefits no one, not even the developers.

But there is worse to come. The government says it wants "new services and facilities" to be provided "where settlements or the populations of their rural catchments are expanding". And why might that be happening? Could it be that somehow the government expects these rural catchments to become progressively developed anyway? New housing wherever there's going to be new housing, perhaps?

Then there is paragraph four, which reads like something out of Alice in Wonderland. "Planning authorities should focus most new development in or near to local service centres ... These centres (which might be a country town, a single large village or a group of villages) should be identified ... allowing for some limited development in or next to rural settlements that are not designated as local service centres ... In particular, local authorities should be supportive of small-scale development ... in villages that are remote from, or have poor public transport links with, service centres".

So there we have it. Development can happen in towns, large villages, within groups of villages, other kinds of villages or remote villages. Where else is there, exactly? Ah yes, the open countryside where the "outstanding" large houses can go. This shambles of a spatial policy entirely contradicts good established government policy on housing and transport.

As far as support for agriculture and associated businesses is concerned, the government's policy is a mixed bag. Encouragingly, there is support for "traditional land-based activities". But the government also wants to encourage "strong, diverse economic activity", "high and stable levels of economic growth" and "a wide range of economic activity". All this new economic activity is likely to make farming and food production increasingly unattractive in business terms by comparison with footloose industries employing people commuting from some distance away.

When it comes to the protection of versatile land, the writing appears to be on the wall. The agricultural value of land will now be weighed against its proximity to infrastructure and a workforce. The more fields that are built on, the closer others will be to infrastructure.

The frustrating thing is that the many good words and phrases in this document are contradicted by others that undermine them. Wise words on the character of rural towns and villages and the enhancement of countryside near towns have to compete with encouragement of development "near" towns and villages. The encouragement of the use of brownfield land rests uneasily with the relaxation of the protection of agricultural fields.

There is one real ray of hope. After stating baldly that it opposed the ability of local authorities to designate local protected landscapes, the government has now wisely changed its mind and shown confidence in the judgment of local authorities to justify extra protection for places such as Aylesbury Vale or the foothills of the Herefordshire Black Mountains. This is real progress. The trouble is that with the government's reluctance to embrace consistently the public benefit of countryside protection, those local landscapes are going to need all the help they can get.

Tom Oliver is head of rural policy at the Campaign to Protect Rural England and a landscape architect

The Campaign to Protect Rural England is at