Just say no: the only way to save the countryside

I love the British countryside. I love it with all the passion of a townsman. But towns can always be built. Nobody makes countryside any more. If it goes, it stays gone and it is now going faster than at any time since the Victorian age. Nobody is lifting a finger to stop it.

At present I do not care who owns this countryside, who lives in it, who works it or who protects it, provided somebody does. Quibble over such details and the enemy is over the fence with a bulldozer in a flash. Saving countryside requires an act of collective will in the face of private gain. We have learnt this the hard way in saving towns. It means an uncompromising no in the face of the builder, because a hesitant no means maybe and maybe means yes.

The Iraq War is causing ever more “collateral damage” on the home front. Total neglect greeted this week’s gargantuan forecast of The State of the Countryside, 2020, from the government Countryside Agency. The report is a mess, a consultants’ mish-mash of Blairite clichis, glib scenarios and top-down projections. It confuses prediction and prescription and is full of politically correct babble about social sustainability and globalisation. It reads like an undergraduate spoof of a “Middle Way” tract of the early 1990s. But at least it addresses a topic of importance.

The message appears to be that nothing much can be done to protect the countryside because commercial development is more potent than conservation. Defenders of the countryside are characterised as defending back yards and resisting change. There is no analysis of how the rural landscape is valued, priced, zoned or protected. No knowledge is shown of practice abroad.

On the other hand the report accepts out of hand Whitehall’s demographic predict-and-provide target, of 4.2 million new houses by 2020, implying the building of another entire Greater London somewhere in the South East. The authors reject price as a mechanism for rationing land and house space. They have joined the Housebuilders’ Federation, the Retail Consortium and the road-building lobby as champions of predict-and-provide. People who want better housing in nicer places must be given it, and at constant or “affordable” prices.

There is no sense in any of this. Housing need is quite different from housing demand. Urbanised Britain has quantities of unused and underused land and the lowest building densities in Europe. It has towns lying half-empty in the depressed North (which this report appears to think does not exist). In the South such cities as Portsmouth, Southampton, Plymouth and even parts of London have houses and land aplenty. There is absolutely no need to use countryside, only politically powerful developers who want to sell houses in it. On the basis of such demand prediction we should now build a million miles of motorway, a thousand hospitals and a dozen airports. If the future of the infinitely fragile countryside is to be at the mercy of house prices, it is doomed.

I do not need a report to tell me the likely outcome of predict-and-provide for rural development. A simple photograph of Long Island, New York, would do, or the Connecticut coastal belt or greater Los Angeles or the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex — any landscape under population pressure with only zoning by-laws to regulate density.

I could print the same photograph of Britain. The collapse of tin and clay mining in Cornwall has left blighted landscapes in a county whose economy now depends on tourism. Market forces cannot restore the scenic beauty of Redruth or St Austell. Nor can planning. In the last half of the 20th century, south Lancashire was coated with housing estates for people “needing” to move out to the country. They did. The estates are no longer rural but squalid and “hard to let”. The urban neighbourhoods left behind are deserted. The whole saga was a travesty of “sustainability”. Yet this is what is happening now. The same laissez faire is seizing the Cambridgeshire-East Midlands corridor as thousands of acres of countryside vanish under shedland and executive estates.

Whatever the Countryside Agency may want, I know what the Government wants. It wants more of the same. The relevant minister, John Prescott, has indicated in many pronouncements that he sees no cause to protect countryside beyond national parks and areas of “outstanding” beauty. He wants to see denser housing in existing towns and villages, which is good, but is relaxed about the salami slicing of green spaces round them. The 50-year-old “presumption against development” in rural Britain is now giving way to a presumption in favour. If planners know that ministers will decide for a new greenfield housing on appeal, they see no point in refusing it. The pass is sold. To see the new Britain, go and look at the environs of Nottingham.

Love of countryside is not new. In the 1930s and 1940s, writers such as Arthur Mee and H. V. Morton hoped that the age of the private motor car would attract a new generation of urban Britons to see how the country lived. They would understand and not obliterate it with free trade and ribbon suburbs. Morton cried Back to the Land for more rural tourism, forecasting that the car would make Britons new Virgilians. He never dreamt that they would slash and burn what they had come to see.

In one sense he was right. In poll after poll, the public regards the countryside as the most cherished symbol of Britishness. It is loved. But democracy offers no way of making that love politically effective. In the past, the wealth of subsidised farming has been the greatest landscape conservator. That is now in decline and farmers are the most ardent developers. True allies of the countryside tend to be newcomers. Their political champions are mostly county councils, which Mr Prescott wants to abolish in favour of regional agencies to do his bidding.

I am no rural romantic. I know that the landscape most people want preserved has been fashioned by human beings since the dawn of history. But they like what has been fashioned, the lowland farms and upland moors of pre-intensive agriculture. For 50 years they have paid for this landscape through the nose in subsidies. They have seen it polluted and stripped of wild flowers, hedges, birds and animals. They now want it restored. It is outrageous to tell them that, having spent so much to preserve the country, they cannot keep it, while the farmer picks up #500,000 an acre in development value.

The countryside is not dead. Most of Britain is still rural. Most of it may be obsolete for agriculture, but then a London street is obsolete for horse-drawn vehicles. The countryside has an alternative value, for public enjoyment. It will be expensive to maintain in its “historic” form, and even more expensive to inhabit. Historic areas of cities are also expensive. But to wipe countryside from the map because it is expensive is ludicrously destructive. It may be hard to give monetary value to such an asset. That does not render it valueless, whatever the Treasury thinks.

There is an alternative to the present policy of let-rip. It is for the Government to order planners to designate appropriate rural landscape as sacrosanct from development. Prime agricultural land was once so designated. Historic townscape is so designated. We have listed buildings. Why not “listed” landscapes? We have tax breaks for those who run historic houses. Why not for historic farms, woods and hills? Maintaining such landscape will cost money, though nothing like on the existing scale of farm subsidies. Taxpayers will surely accept this lower burden. Landowners and farmers may protest at becoming hobby farmers and park rangers, but that is what they are in many countries (notably Switzerland). He who pays the piper calls the tune. The value of development land will certainly rise and house prices with it. This happens also in historic cities.

Terror of being thought pro-rich or anti-growth has neutered the supposed defenders of the countryside. The greens take money for wind turbines. Local lobbies concede planning permissions for “key-worker housing”. Nobody dares defend rural beauty for its own sake. All take refuge in such weasel words as sustainable, affordable and holistic, code for “we surrender”.

At this rate it is goodbye countryside Britain and hello Long Island. In a hundred years’ time Britain’s biggest traffic jams will be in the tunnel to France, where these things are better ordered.