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The Conservative government and the countryside

The Conservative government and the countryside Photo: © CPRE

What does a Conservative government mean for CPRE’s priorities?

There were certainly some welcome promises in the manifesto, which reaffirmed the aim of ‘being the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than that in which we found it’, and declared boldly: ‘We will protect your countryside, Green Belt and urban environment.’

I have no doubt that David Cameron cares about the countryside. This comes across in his Q&A with CPRE’s President, Andrew Motion, where he describes himself as ‘a country boy at heart’. And I recall a fine impromptu speech he gave last summer at Burford School on the history and future of rural England – I doubt any of the other party leaders (a moving feast, I know) could have spoken with such knowledge and passion.

The trouble, of course, is that as Prime Minister David Cameron has too often forgotten the countryside and left others do their worst. On the National Planning Policy Framework, for instance, he let the Chancellor call the shots.

The experience of the last government suggests that manifesto promises are a poor guide to how things will pan out in reality. It is not just events that get in the way of fulfilling manifesto promises; people make a difference.

On housing and planning, for instance, there were three phases during the last government. First, a genuine attempt to localise and simplify the planning system, led by Greg Clark but subverted by the Treasury. Second, Nick Boles’s pugnacious time as planning minister, which caused lots of (sometimes enjoyable) aggro, but damaged the countryside and failed to get more homes built. Finally, Brandon Lewis as housing and planning minister generated less heat but considerably more light.

This is a reminder to avoid ‘the cant of “measures not men”’. Ministers matter. We will soon know who we have and – in the most important departments for the countryside – whether they will have any chance of standing up to the Treasury (or whether they want to).

I hope that goodwill and good ministers will ensure that the new government is considerably better for the countryside and wider environment than most of my NGO colleagues fear. But here are a few reasons to be cautious.

Housing

The Conservative Manifesto proposes to help housing association tenants buy their homes. I am pleased that part of the proceeds will go into a Brownfield Fund, but pumping money into the housing market rather than using it to build houses is massively counter-productive. Housing association tenants will get a very nice subsidy from the taxpayer, but other first time buyers will face higher prices. And flogging social housing without replacing it will seriously compound the housing crisis, hitting those most in need. It is highly unlikely that the homes expropriated from housing associations (the Conservative Party having a Leninist moment) will be replaced one-for-one. I hope the Government will think again.

Planning

Neighbourhood planning will continue to be supported and the punk economics of the free market think-tanks – release more greenfield land and the market will miraculously produce more homes – looks set to be resisted. This is good. But we need better ways of deciding where new housing should go, and we need to make better use of existing stock across the country (in this respect, the PM’s renewed commitment today to a ‘northern powerhouse’ is very welcome).

In short, we need some sort of strategic planning. It suits CPRE to see off the drive for large-scale development in the countryside – that is a large part of our purpose – but it does not suit us to see the too few homes built year after year, too many of them in the wrong places. At present it is left to 330 local councils and the Planning Inspectorate to decide how many homes should be built and where they should go. That did not work in the last Parliament and it will not work in the next.

In the longer term, England needs a land use strategy, encompassing the recovery of nature, flood protection, carbon sequestration and all the other uses of land, as well as development. There will be plenty of SNP MPs in the new Parliament to consult on the Scottish land use strategy.

The Green Belt

The planning system puts huge pressure on inadequately resourced local authorities to find land for housing. The Government has become clearer in the last couple of years that this should not be at the expense of the Green Belt – see, for instance, David Cameron’s interview with Andrew Motion – but still land is being removed from the Green Belt at an alarming rate, without proper Green Belt reviews and without a clear justification of ‘exceptional circumstances’. The Conservative Manifesto takes credit for the defence of the Green Belt, and perhaps Ministers really do believe that the Green Belt has been safe in their hands. But if they do, they are not listening to their local authority colleagues.

Launching the Conservatives’ housing plans, David Cameron said: ‘I want my children to be able to walk, as they can now, from Liverpool to Leeds through Green Belt protected land.’ They might be wise to make the walk now (all 70 miles of it) as some of the authorities along the way are already progressing Green Belt reviews or Green Belt release – Liverpool, Sefton, Knowsley, Manchester, Salford (which was told by the Inspector that it had allocated too many brownfield sites in its draft local plan), Tameside and Pendle, to name a few.

Warm words on the Green Belt are welcome, but will the Government really defend it in this Parliament, as it failed to in the last?

Roads

The Manifesto says that new roads will be built ‘in a way that limits, as far as possible, their impact on the environment’. There is a commitment to more tunnelling, better noise barriers, less light pollution and ‘helping to restore lost habitats’. I will pass on the philosophical question of how you restore something you have ‘lost’, which I think means destroyed, and simply welcome this commitment to build new roads in a more sensitive way (see John Hayes’s speech to CPRE and the Campaign for Better Transport).

But there is no getting away from the fact that building 1300 extra lane miles of roads will have an extremely damaging impact on the countryside, including the countryside in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Europe

Overall, the EU has been good for the environment. The Government is committed to a referendum on our membership, and we have seen recently how unpredictable referendums and elections can be. So it looks reasonably likely that the UK (assuming we still have a UK) will choose to leave the EU within the next five years. The consequences for farming and the environment could be immense, though they have barely had a look-in in the debate so far.

Litter

I always feel the risk of bathos when I write about CPRE’s Stop the Drop campaign. How can litter be discussed in the same breath as the housing crisis or whether Britain decides to go it alone (like 1940, but this time voluntarily)? I was cheered, therefore, that Radio 4’s The Listeners’ Election focussed on litter as an issue that ‘cuts to the heart of the most basic question in contemporary politics: who takes responsibility for making life better?’

The Conservative Manifesto takes credit for the Coalition’s introduction of a charge for single-use carrier bags. The bag charge was pushed by Conservative MPs, notably Zac Goldsmith, and supported by the Prime Minister. But other Conservative ministers (no prizes for guessing who) did their best to weaken the policy and its survival was largely down to Nick Clegg and other Liberal Democrats. I hope the bag charge – and a wider drive against litter – will be supported by the new government.

Other issues

There are many other important issues, of course. The two Energy and Climate Secretaries in the Coalition were Liberal Democrats, and complained fairly publicly that they were being undermined by the Chancellor and the Communities Secretary. How will a Conservative Secretary of State tackle the brief? What will happen to farming policy? What of the commitment to a 25 year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity? I guess we will have to see.

Find out more

This blog was originally published by Shaun Spiers on CPRE viewpoint on 8 May 2015.

Shaun Spiers has also blogged on The new government ministers: reasons to be cheerful

 

I hope that goodwill and good ministers will ensure that the new government is considerably better for the countryside and wider environment than most of my NGO colleagues fear.




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