The Plantation of Wessex

Last April, one of Eric Pickles’ Planning Inspectors opened a public inquiry in the Oxfordshire village of Bloxham.  The Coalition promised localism – local decisions made by local folk, without interference from London – but – as we have mentioned many times – their localism is a lie.  Under real localism, there would be no such thing as a Planning Inspector because there would be no such thing as a right of appeal against a local decision.

At the inquiry, local residents gave their views on a proposal to build up to 85 more houses on farmland east of the village.  One argued that: “There has been a remarkable expansion of Bloxham in the last fifty years.  Recent developments have been on agricultural land and have clearly put further strain on the village infrastructure…  Six farms within the village boundaries have been lost and due consideration should be given to future demand for agricultural land for food production and our future food security.”  A local councillor added that: “The village is already bursting at the seams with traffic and flooding problems, power outages and surgeries and schools that are at capacity.”
The Inspector, if he recognised the arguments at all, gave them short shrift in his report: “I accept that Bloxham has seen a considerable amount of development since 2001 and note that residents consider it to be now ‘full’.  However, … I cannot accept that the quantum of development can be a determining factor in this appeal…  Government policy is strongly directed towards an increase in housing designed to stimulate the economy.  Nowhere is there guidance that requires the retention of agricultural land per se for future food security.  This is not therefore a matter that can weigh against the proposed development.”
Pickles duly concurred.  His assistant issued a grant of planning permission, noting that: “The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that there are no grounds for weighing the loss of agricultural land per se for future food security against the appeal proposal.”  The Government’s view then is not that food security matters generally, but that other factors outweighed it in this particular case.  It is far more stark than that: it simply won’t acknowledge the problem at all.  And so the fantasy continues: Britain will build houses to accommodate a bigger workforce that will do stuff in ‘financial services‘ to pay the bills, enabling us to buy whatever food we need on world markets.  Until one day the food isn’t there, because the growers have kept it to feed their own growing families.  One does have to wonder if there isn’t a grand plan by self-loathing loons (Pickles included) to create the conditions for starvation in that old imperial power off the north-west coast of Europe.
So who is standing up for our farmland?  Farmers?  Landowners?  Certainly not.  Watch the food security card being played for all it’s worth in defence of subsidies, to go on farming marginal land that might be better used for wildlife or forestry.  But go on watching and the card magically disappears if good, productive land on the edges of towns and villages can be generously contributed towards solving the nation’s housing “crisis”.
Two quotes from Peter Clery’s recent polemic, Green Gold: A Thousand Years of English Landillustrate the point.  On one page he tells us that: “In a time of pending world shortages of food and fuel, a nation which relies too much on others to feed it is unwise to say the least.  The next war, when our land will again be crucial to survival, may not be military but a creeping economic attack.  Others, who work harder or more efficiently than we do, may outbid us for food on world markets leaving us even more dependent on what we can produce at home.  In any case, food issues will become more important and food will cost more.  The interests of bats and badgers will take second place in the public mind if there is insufficient bread in the shops.”
Yet on the very same page he also tells us that: “There are few landowners in England who would not be willing to release perhaps one per cent of their land for intelligent well designed housing or light industry and offices.  One per cent of farmland is some 220,000 acres – more than enough to meet the perceived housing need with increasing supply reducing the price to a more sensible relationship between plot cost and building cost.”  That’ll be 1% now, 1% later, 1% after that, and so on bit by bit to the crack of ecological doom.  Elsewhere, Clery is good enough to point out that 100,000 acres – roughly the area lost to motorways since 1945 – is 300,000 tons of wheat foregone every year, forever.
Such confused thinking is not at all unusual among those with a vested interest in making the most money from land.  We need to rethink not only the planning laws but also laws on the ownership, tenure and taxation of land if we are to remove the huge incentives for farmers to destroy the most basic tool of their trade.  Old Labour tried three times to establish a betterment tax to capture the unearned increase in land value upon change of use; three times their work was undone by the Tories.  New Labour, a perfect poodle of the propertarians, never bothered.
So if those most directly affected are not defending our land, who is?  If you’re a Tory, appalled at the development frenzy that Cameron’s gung-ho City yobs are now getting away with, where do you turn?  The LibDems?  The Chair of that party’s backbench housing committee is Annette Brooke, MP for Mid-Dorset and North Poole.  Her solution to the housing “crisis” is a wave of ‘garden communities’ of around 10,000 homes.  Where promoted by local councils and enjoying local support.  (As if.)  But according to Brooke, “local people will need to understand why they are needed”.  Classic London-speak.  It’s now the common currency of all three main London parties, this patronising tone that politicians use when they talk down to the implicitly thick electorate, whose views they’re supposed to be representing, not manipulating.
For as long as voters think they have only three choices, the only alternative to the Coalition parties is to re-elect the last lot of rogues who were unseated in 2010.  According to design consultant Andy von Bradsky, who has his finger on the Labour pulse, that party is more comfortable with top-down approaches.  It has no need to justify itself to a Wessex electorate that, thanks to the voters of the rest of the UK, can be safely ignored.  Labour’s housing review, led by Sir Michael Lyons, is looking at “how the pace of development might be forced”, according to von Bradsky.  Shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds, who sits for Wolverhampton, has suggested that up to five new towns could be created under a future Labour government.  Not all necessarily in Wessex, but who knows for sure?  The means envisaged aren’t at all subtle.  Either imposition through national legislation, or an unbeatable offer to exhausted councils desperate for an alternative to the salami-slicing of treasured environments that goes on daily thanks to the appeals system.
The best that can be said about the prospective plantation of Wessex with new towns is that it will concentrate the environmental damage in a few places instead of spreading it thinly.  Which is not a great recommendation.  It isn’t the fault of Wessex if London cannot manage its population and so casts envious eyes on our broad acres for overspill.  The Wessex dialect and the customs, traditions and memories that make Wessex special are in retreat across much of the east of our region.  It‘s not so much because of cockneyisation in principle that this happens – anyone is capable of adopting a mix of identities – but because we lack the political institutions – and even the cultural ones – to defend our regional differences and encourage native and settler alike to value them.  London sets the tone for us all and whatever London doesn’t value is trampled underfoot and ridiculed.
Suggest five new towns in Cornwall or mid-Wales and watch the active reaction take hold.  Suggest them in Wessex and the reactions will range from indifference to resignation.  What can we do?  What can you do?  Rip up that membership card from the party of self-annihilation: whether Cameron’s, Clegg’s or Miliband’s, or Farage’s too for that matter.  And join the party of the Wessex resistance instead.