Britain’s rural landscape is under attack in the name of economic growth – despite David Cameron’s promise to lead the “greenest government ever.” The Prime Minister believes that the key to recovery is to build our way out of recession as was the case in the 1930s. But how much of our glorious greenery will we have sacrificed before we are satisfied with the rate of growth?
One significant cause of the threat to rural Britain is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Put forward in March 2012, with a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable’ development, it makes it extremely difficult to carry out the mandate of preserving the rural nature of the area in which rurally based Conservative Councillors are elected.
Not only does the nature of the NPPF suggest worrying implications for our idyllic landscape, but it also makes our Council look ‘spineless and inept’ as we were referred to in my first parish meeting two days after I was elected. We can no longer take the rural vote for granted. In my by-election back in May 2013, nearly all of the spoiled ballots I was shown had some reference to the lack of a UKIP candidate standing. Another more recent by-election in my area saw an extremely narrow victory for a Conservative where a UKIP member had stood against him. In most areas of my district, we nearly always see a huge victory against the sum total of Labour, Lib Dem and the Green’s vote combined.
I would not dispute that the vast majority of Britain’s countryside (over 90%) remains untouched, but it is where the development is taking place that is harming the Tory vote. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), over one thousand hectares of green belt land (an area of open land around a settlement on which building is restricted) have been lost each year since 1997, covered in over 45,000 houses, spanning an area that roughly equates to a city the size of Bath. This is happening right on the doorstep of a great number of people who very often elect local Conservative Councillors for the purpose of preventing it. Is it any wonder that 13% of the almost exclusively Conservative Countryside Alliance now intends to vote UKIP in 2015?
The most frustrating aspect of the housing vs. environment issue is that plenty could be done to accommodate Britain’s growing population that would offend very few. Another CPRE report has identified derelict brownfield sites available for building approximately 1.5 million new homes. This would be on top of the 300,000 empty houses in the UK unoccupied for months, as well as the vast amount of land that our nation’s major house builders have permission to build on that could accommodate another 280,000 homes. Somewhat surprisingly, this report came after the last Labour government smashed targets to increase brownfield development by 60% before 2008, eight years ahead of schedule. Furthermore, back in 2011, local authorities identified an estimated 63,750ha of Brownfield land in England, up 2.6% from 62,130ha in previous year. Half of this land was derelict or vacant, with the other half in use, but with potential for redevelopment.
Clearly then there is a case for more ambitious targets in regions across the UK which could be encouraged through corporation tax relief for housing developers. The Conservative Party could even re-consider the Lib-Dems controversial Land Tax which would deter Greenfield development. Many commentators have pointed out that one of the main barriers to brownfield development is the uncertainties around cost, particularly during negotiations surrounding the clean-up operations of the areas on which they are to build, so the government U-turn to abolish Land Remediation Relief is welcome.
Eric Pickles’ recent announcement to grant more power to local councils could not have come soon enough. By making it more difficult to build on green belts, developers will naturally gravitate towards brownfield growth and focus on smaller urban properties that are more realistically priced for the people who need housing most.
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