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The battle to halt subtopia

Simon Jenkins

The New Forest's new status as a National Park is a sham; our countryside is under assault

THIS WEEK the New Forest becomes Britain’s twelfth National Park. Three cheers. The wildwood of Norman mystery, Royalist adventure and adorable ponies is gathered into the bear-hug of John Prescott’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Prescott wanted to give the Forest as “a birthday present from Labour to the youth of this country”. Eat your heart out, William the Conqueror. Labour skylarks now sing Labour praises from Labour hawthorn bushes. Labour snowdrops weep tears of joy on Beaulieu Heath. Yokels in smocks cry thank you, dear Mr Prescott.

The New Forest is a precious and fragile 220 square miles of tended wilderness. It has survived through the commitment of its Court of Verderers and designation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). With the virtual disappearance of Sherwood, Breckland, Ashdown and Poole Heath, the Forest is a unique relic of lowland wood and heath. While no longer populated with H.V. Morton’s “slow Saxons with their wits about them and their tongues padlocked”, it embodies the new amenity landscape.

No real value is added by National Park status. The Forest is already protected by its local government and AONB controls. Nationalisation was, as Mr Prescott admitted, a millennium gimmick. It ranks with the National Trust’s 1998 publicity stunt in spending £4 million to “save” the already protected Snowdon, yet refusing to save the unprotected Cambrian Mountains to the south. As a result, the latter are now being ruined for the largest land-based wind turbine acreage in Europe, at a cost of millions of pounds of public subsidy. That is where Mr Prescott’s national park should be — and where of course it is not.

The truth of the matter comes from Alun Michael, the Minister of State for Rural Affairs. He admitted that some formal designation is now “vital to securing our natural heritage”. They key word is vital: without designation the natural heritage is insecure. As he said last year, the Government’s concern is for “the best countryside”, defined as National Parks, AONBs and other specially protected areas. Local planning control can no longer defend the rest against developers or the Government itself.

The New Forest well illustrates this point. It was already safe. But it has the Southampton-Portsmouth conurbation pressing to its east and the Bournemouth-Christchurch conurbation pressing to the west. Mr Prescott is insisting that Hampshire build 40,000 houses and has eased the planning system to enable them to go wherever they want. Developers can overrule local opposition since Mr Prescott is removing planning power from counties and giving it to his own officials. Hampshire is to be rebuilt from Whitehall.

There is now nothing that need halt the growth of Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood and Southampton right up to the Forest perimeter. With the steady erosion of its rural hinterland, the Forest will over time become an isolated park in a subtopian south Hampshire sprawl. I would lay money that the Government is already pondering an M27 extension slap across it, with wind turbines on its northern slopes.

In other words the national park that we should be discussing is the rest of rural Britain. It is everything now described as “green”. Every study of the rural economy, including Whitehall’s land-use report last year, concludes that its future lies in leisure and “niche farming”. A landscape fashioned for centuries by the economics of self-sufficiency must mimic the landed estates of the 18th and 19th centuries, places of resort and enjoyment, now for the many not the few.

Mr Prescott’s policy is to encourage new settlements in country areas, where his voters would like to live. He even wants to demolish cheap houses in Northern cities rather than induce them to retain population. This policy is a denial of long-term planning and ignores external costs. Depopulated, polarised cities become sinks of crime and poverty. Dispersed rural estates are costly to service and are soon suburbanised, forcing everyone to drive ever greater distances for their leisure.

This is not a policy, merely a capitulation to short-term market forces.

All is not lost. Elsewhere in the Whitehall jungle is good news. Far from the philistine ODPM is Margaret Beckett’s born-again agriculture ministry, now grandly titled “environment, food and rural affairs”. Yesterday it announced details of the new Environment Stewardship Scheme, heralding the most radical change in farming since the advent of the Common Agricultural Policy. It is possibly the last hope of stopping Mr Prescott from opening the urban floodgates.

The CAP’s new “single farm payment” system replaces production subsidies with fixed acreage payments. Farmers will be paid to do what they do now, and to look after the countryside. The stewardship scheme gives a foretaste of what this means. Hedges must be replanted, wild flowers encouraged, pastures restored and pesticides banned. Fields must be brought alive with larks and voles. Barns must be filled with organic fare. If the public is to pay the piper — the farmer as agent of the rural estate — it will call the tune. That tune is the Pastoral Symphony, not the Dambusters March.

In survey after survey people profess their enthusiasm for countryside. It is a defining quality of Britishness. The one hope is to keep Mr Prescott at bay long enough for Mrs Beckett’s (and Europe’s) farm policies to bite. Farmers must be stopped from selling their land for building. This means incentives to look after the landscape along lines required by those who are paying for it, a public that wants future generations to enjoy it. That is the way to heal the urban/rural split revealed in the hunting debate.

The alternative is no mystery. It is a Britain in which Mr Michael’s national parks are throttled by an endless monotonous sprawl — and everyone takes their leisure in France.