What is the point of a Conservative Party if it's planning to concrete our fields
23:16 GMT, 28 November 2012
The Conservative Party was once the party of the countryside. It remained so to a surprisingly large degree even when it began to draw much of its support from the growing suburbs. No longer. It has officially become the anti-countryside party.
First we had David Cameron and the Tory front bench encouraging grotesque wind turbines, an expensive and inefficient way of generating electricity. These monsters in turn necessitate miles of unsightly new pylons which desecrate large parts of the English (and Welsh and Scottish) countryside.
Now we have a planning minister who wants to concrete over more swathes of England. Nick Boles says we need to increase the amount of greenfield land built on in England by one third to accommodate new houses. This amounts to more than 1,500 square miles, or twice the area of Greater London.
Expensive: David Cameron and the Tory front bench have encouraged wind farms in the past
In an interview due to be aired on BBC2’s Newsnight last night, he opined that developed land should rise from 9 per cent to around 12 per cent of England. The alternative is that ‘kids are never going to get a place with a garden to bring up their grandkids’. That’s supposed to frighten us.
Mr Boles relishes giving the pot a good old stir. When appointed to his present job two months ago, he described countryside campaigners who are against the development of the green belt as ‘hysterical, scaremongering latter-day Luddites’. Doesn’t he sound a reasonable and moderate chap
What is the point of the Conservative Party if not to conserve the ancient things that are precious to most citizens It is not just the ‘nimbies’ decried by Mr Boles who care. In city, suburb and village there is a shared love of our countryside, a widespread feeling that what survives of it constitutes one of our few remaining glories.
In other words, the fields, streams and copses of England in some way belong to all of us. We own a personal emotional stake. Although every single blade of grass obviously can’t be defended, a Tory minister championing the destruction of the countryside has embarked on an electoral kamikaze mission.
'Safe for now': Two months ago Nick Boles, planning minister, said that the green belt was in danger
The wonder of it all is that it is not even necessary. No one questions that as a result of a soaring population, largely fuelled by uncontrolled immigration over recent years, we face a serious housing shortage. Fewer new houses are being built than at any time since the Twenties.
As a result of the recession, in 2011 only 115,000 homes were given planning permission in England, compared with 212,000 in 2007 at the height of the boom. When, or if, the economy eventually recovers, house building will begin to rise again.
But there is no reason why the countryside should have to be bulldozed in the process. According to official estimates, there is suitable so-called ‘brownfield’ land available for 1.5 million new homes. Some 400,000 of them could be built in London, where the pressure for new housing is greatest.
Anyone who travels by rail into one of our great cities will see boundless empty acres colonised only by weeds and piles of rubbish. Why are these not developed first Network Rail, or whoever the owners may be, should be incentivised, and if need be forced, to sell unused land.
Admittedly, it is often easier and cheaper for developers to move into virgin territory. I hope that the Tory front bench’s enthusiasm for ‘greenfield’ development is not influenced by avaricious developers who also happen to be bankrolling the party.
Nor should we forget that there are an estimated three-quarters-of-a-million unoccupied dwellings in the United Kingdom. Wouldn’t it be sensible to make use of as many of these as possible before carpeting fields with new houses Why not tax homes which remain unoccupied for a long time, as well as unused building land
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There are, in fact, many alternatives to destroying more of England’s green and pleasant land, and I am baffled that Mr Boles, apparently supported by David Cameron and George Osborne, should be ignoring them. I repeat: what’s the point of a Conservative Party that hasn’t any feeling for the countryside
I don’t want to delve too deeply, but I can’t help wondering whether Mr Boles’s peculiar fervour may not be influenced by some personal psycho-drama. His father, Sir Jack, was head of the pro-countryside National Trust between 1975 and 1983, and the young Nick grew up in a series of idyllic rural locations.
Might he not be simply rebelling against his background Whatever the explanation, there is neither cause nor justification for increasing the amount of land built on by a whopping third.
And you can be sure that, if Mr Boles and the developers get their way, most of these new houses will be in the South-East of England, one of the most densely populated parts of Europe, where significantly more than nine per cent of land is already given over to building.
If there has to be new development, it would surely make sense for it to take place in those parts of the country where there is much more space, and the economy stands in most need of growth. London and the South-East are bulging at the seams.
One way of attracting more people to the less populated regions of England would be to introduce the much talked of, but so far undelivered, local wage bargaining in the public sector. Companies would be more likely to move into these areas if pay rates were more competitive.
Of course, the pressure for new houses will only get worse unless net immigration is brought under control. Though very slightly reduced under the Coalition, the level is still running at more than 200,000 a year, rather than the ‘tens of thousands’ Mr Cameron promised.
According to the think-tank MigrationWatch, some 200 houses a day — 73,000 a year — are needed as a result of immigration. Official figures suggest that 36 per cent of new households over the next 25 years will spring from the same cause.
Concern: People from town and country are worried about proposals as they want to safeguard the country's heritage.
The short-sightedness of ministers in the last Labour government in throwing open our borders has served to exacerbate housing problems with which this country can barely cope: the population of Britain is projected to grow by an amazing 17 million to 80 million in 2050.
I fear that many of the fields and woods of England will inevitably be destroyed, but the damage can still be kept to a minimum if brownfield sites are utilised, and unoccupied homes are pressed into use.
What is so objectionable about Nick Boles is his tone almost of exultancy. An expression of regret about these pressures on our countryside would be in order — as well as a pledge to do whatever can be done to resist greenfield development, and defend the integrity of our precious land.
Most of us are not nimbies worrying about our own backyard. We’re people from town and country who want to safeguard our heritage.
It is astonishing and depressing that most of the Tory front bench would seem to be on the wrong side in this struggle.