Thursday, 26 June 2014

Saving the Fields of Old England

Andrew Motion in the Guardian

Today is the centenary of Laurie Lee's birth and a fitting moment to reflect on Cider with Rosie's evocation of an England "which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years' life". Today, many feel the gigantic upheaval he witnessed is being followed by another, which is producing the biggest changes to the countryside within our living memories.

It is a defining moment, crystallised by a threat that faces Lee's countryside. Even as I write this, government planning inspectors are deciding whether to allow developers to build a housing estate in the green fields of the Slad Valley where the book was set. This is despite the local council's rejection of the plans. Similar things are happening all over the country.

That's precisely why the government have to intervene. Because "similar things" means no-one builds housing. It's a tragedy of the commons problem.

David Cameron recently visited the valley and said he understood the book's "wonderful links with this very special part of the world". But on the subject of the proposed development, the prime minister observed: "New houses have to be built so we have to make choices about where they will go."

He is right: there is a choice. We need to build more homes, but our politicians are failing to show the vision and ambition of their predecessors – the men and women who acted to protect our commons, national parks, green belts and footpaths.

Because their predecessors weren't faced with development hitting the problem of green belts. Oxford has pretty much expanded to the edge of its greenbelt. It's why Mini are recruiting in Swindon for staff to commute to Cowley (it would make more sense to move the Mini plant to Swindon, but that's another story).

I understand that MPs are inevitably pulled towards the immediate wishes of voters concerned about economic growth. But politicians have always been beset by day-to-day challenges, not least the postwar governments, which faced huge problems of reconstruction but still managed to introduce protection for landscapes, nature and heritage.

That's just hilarious. Post-war planning almost entirely ignored heritage and nature. There's all sorts of buildings from the 1960s and 1970s that got thrown up with almost no consideration of how they fitted into the existing aesthetic. Old buildings were knocked down to make way for a new golden era of Le Corbusier influenced eyesores (some of which are now protected, you monsters).

We need to recapture some of that inclusive, progressive and enlightened thinking. It's not an alternative to sound economic and social policy; rather, it can be the foundation of such things.

Our democratic, locally led planning system was part of the great postwar settlement for the countryside – together with national parks and green belts – but it has been steadily eroded by recent governments. To address the problems the country faces, we will need more land-use planning, not less.

Bollocks. It's been steadily eroded by homeownerism. When people were pro- building houses, you could leave it up to local democracy. If you travel to some of the large villages that I knew as a boy, you can look at the architectural styles and see that there was a massive amount of building from the 60s to the 80s, followed by the odd tiny development since. More land-use planning would make things even worse.

There are enough brownfield sites in England to accommodate 1.5m homes close to jobs, services and infrastructure. We must make these homes affordable, without compromising on quality.

Developing disused sites will both improve our towns and cities, and help us safeguard the countryside. This matters. Contact with the natural world is not just a pleasure, it's a necessity, and a part of what makes us who we are.

Governments are already in favour of this. This is current policy, started by Prescott. Stop pretending that this isn't current policy.

Englishness is tricky to define, not least because it tends to shun large gestures and rhetorical flourishes. But traditional attitudes, such as pride in our countryside, exist in a wonderful, big melting pot of Englishness, together with our pride in absorbing new cultures and our refusal to make Englishness an issue of race or birthplace.

Satish Kumar, Benjamin Zephaniah, Marina Lewycka and Anish Kapoor have all signed the Campaign to Protect Rural England's "save our countryside" charter. But too many politicians lack the courage to stand up for the countryside. That is a shame.

Brown people like the countryside, too. Who knew?

As we approach the general election next May, we should also give thought to the big, over-arching questions. How do we want to live? What sort of country do we want to live in? We should be thinking of houses as homes not investments, of other marks of national progress than mere economic growth, and of the importance to everyone's life of beauty and wellbeing.

Indeed. So, why is the CPRE against building, when this would help to destroy investments and give more people homes? Why is it in favour of sticking VAT on building which will kill off new builds and only having LVT on unused sites? If you want to reduce building, you'd introduce LVT which would encourage people to move away from the south of England and to cheaper bits of the country where there's plenty of land.


Kj said...

Good post. Agreed, the policy proposals are incredibly strange, and reflects the schizophrenic attitude of the do-gooders, they really hate construction, love the green stuff, aren't too fussed about the economics, but probably genuinely wants people to have homes.

Woodsy42 said...

The main problem for me about building housing in the countryside - and I live in a small village - is not the building or even the loss of green fields but that that they build absolutely horrible estates of identikit town houses.
One small site near me is due for development and the planner's scheme, next door to a 200 year old house one side and a field the other, was a block of 'seaside type' flats with blue glass balconies. There is little hope with imbeciles like this in the driving seat. I and others strongly objected, and the council turned it down - is that really nimbyism? I don't think it is.

The Stigler said...


I don't really buy it.

There's tons of countryside in this country. Bloody tons of it. And pretty much no-one wants to build on the crushingly beautiful parts of it because there would be a massive public outcry about it. You'd have a lot more than NIMBYs out there if you tried to built at Symonds Yat or started knocking down the New Forest.

I'm really bored by the way NIMBYs try and push the romance about protecting what is nearly always a dull bit of field.

Why do you get to decide what sort of houses should be in that location? I'll bet your house didn't fit the aesthetic of the area when it was built, probably houses with thatched roofs rather than whatever is on yours.

benj said...

If the CPRE were stalwarts of LVT, you'd have some sympathy.

As it is, they should STFU, go away and have a think about it.

Thanks Stigler for posting the link. My blood pressure needed raising a few % points this afternoon.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed, it's the usual dreary NIMBY shite. So some bloke wrote a book about a field. Big deal. Why does that mean we can't build on it.

Following his logic, nothing would have been built in London since Charles Dickens' time.

@ W42 - I agree with you on the blue balconies, but what's wrong with "identikit"?

Most streets or estates are indentikit, it looks smarter that way. I had no problem living in a 1900s terraced house that was more or less identical to hundreds of others on the same street and the surrounding streets. That was part of the fun.

Lola said...

Re the identikit thing. 'Planners' and 'conservationists' love the randomness of ye olde English village, but that came about as a result of no planning. Or rather planning to build what was 'fit for purpose'. These olde villages probably (usually) replaced ye olde mud huttees or round stone single room crofts. So what modern planning and nimbyism does is preserve in aspic the last change. Human settlements are dynamic. They have to be to survive economically. So, building an estate of identikit houses is no different from building a row of labourers cottages.

(Fess up time. I live in a Suffolk village, well, well out of it actually. And I would HATE anyone to build on the fields around me and despoil my rural idyll. But there you go).

DBC Reed said...

TS There is absolutely no point in whacking LVT on expensive land and hoping developers go somewhere awful like Hull and put up houses there.Nobody is going to move there if there is n't any work.There are plenty of ghost estates in Ireland, Spain and, even,China.
The guv has to move large public sector employers to faraway places
and put up houses there.I would start with the Treasury.Although I am a Stalinist lover of bureaucrats ( it keep them off the streets and stops them teaching in schools), I cannot see what the Treasury does.I would then move all the other ministries out.I would also nationalise a few industries just to move them out of London and disperse the population geographically.
The libertarian laissez faire riff that's been playing for so long to the gratification of ex-hippy computer freaks has had its day. Given laissez faire, everybody converges on London.

Derek said...

It's pretty misguided of Andrew Motion to talk about "a threat that faces Lee's countryside" in any case. The threat that faced Lee's countryside faced it in the 1920s and 30s and destroyed it.

That threat was mechanisation which reduced the need for agricultural labour drastically. As a result there was a huge reduction in the rural population between 1920 and 1970 as people moved to the towns in search of work. You can decide for yourself whether that was a good thing or a bad thing but either way it was caused by technological improvements and the Law of Rent, so pretty well inevitable in the absence of LVT.

The result is today's countryside largely populated by landowners, commuters and retirees. Still a nice place to live but it's a playground for most of its inhabitants, not Lee's countryside of landowners and agricultural workers.

In Lee's countryside there was no NIMBYism because most of the population were there to make a living.

Woodsy42 said...

"Why do you get to decide what sort of houses should be in that location? I'll bet your house didn't fit the aesthetic "

If it were an individual building their own place to get what they wanted then I would feel very differently. But it's not. It's a speculative development, and realistically someone has to decide what's best for the people,locality and community (for incoming people as well as existing). So the question changes:
Should any decision rest with people who know and appreciate the area, and have a reasonable idea of what would be best for everyone OR should it be a remote company determined to build any old crap that maximises their financial profit even if it is unpalatable for the existing people and likely to be less than ideal for incomers by destroying the atmosphere of the very locality they want to live in?

Woodsy42 said...

" but what's wrong with "identikit"? "

Because what's a best fit suitable house design in (say)the Lake district is not the same as the best type to build in (say)Margate.
It's depressing enough that every town centre in the country all look the same with the same shops, same architcture and same products, why do we want to make every part of the country look alike?

The Stigler said...


"Nobody is going to move there if there isn't any work"

But a lot of businesses are very flexible about location. I know a couple of software specialists who have their offices in North Wales. They can do their work almost anywhere. We've seen factories move from Wales to China for the same reason. And Pinewood have created a new production facility near Newport.

Mark Wadsworth said...

W42: "why do we want to make every part of the country look alike?"

We don't, and I never said we did.

Brick built Victorian terrace is bog standard in most parts of London; stone built terrace in most parts of Leeds, those cute slate buildings in the Lake District all look the same; around Canary Wharf in London is all steel and glass high rise.

Which I find quite pleasing. So I agreed with you on the blue balconies because that is clearly out of place, but the fact that houses look similar to others in the area is a plus not a minus.

Lola said...

DBCR - Seriously? I mean seriously!?

In fact Hull is OK. All that bit of the East Coast that's closest to Russia has its merits, it's just that they are over-taxed and cannot compete. LVT would hugely reduce their tax burden and enable them to compete. Non location specific businesses would migrate there and location specific ones would become less marginal.

All your fascist / socialist authoritarian forced relocation is a bit worrying. Unless of course you're being ironic and I have missed it.

Oh and the ghost estates in Ireland etc are down to bad and under-priced money encouraging massive misallocation of said capital.

The Stigler said...


Should any decision rest with people who know and appreciate the area, and have a reasonable idea of what would be best for everyone OR should it be a remote company determined to build any old crap that maximises their financial profit even if it is unpalatable for the existing people and likely to be less than ideal for incomers by destroying the atmosphere of the very locality they want to live in?

What's your answer to that? Do you think that people living in a town or village should have the final democratic power to veto the construction of buildings and structures?

Lola said...


Following on from TS's response, not all developers want to build any old crap. In fact a lot of them want to build things that people want to buy, especially the smaller developer. I admit that this has become a bit distorted recently, but that's down to bad planning and bad money and other external factors.

FYI my old man built a lot of small developments in villages around here and in all of them he was most concerned to get the design right - even fighting planners who wanted stuff that wasn't right.

Woodsy42 said...

@Stigler - I honestly dont know the answer, I do however think locals should have a veto over the designs and styles. Architects and planning authorities seem to have totally lost the plot.

I agree Lola, of the small scale developments in the village since I have been here some are dreadful eyesores, appallingly and unsympathetically designed - and very difficult to sell (so the 'market' has a belated input) Most are okish. Yet one pub conversion is a shining example of a beautifully thought out piece of planning and design which improved the surroundings. It can be done and I'm pleased your family go to the trouble to try and do it well.

Kj said...

I actually agree with DBC that govt can move location-irrelevant functions out of the capital. It's nothing to do with lassez faire or not ofcourse, as it's government's prerogative to do so. It mighteven save the odd quid.

Lola said...

KJ. They have moved government out of the capital - but with national pay rates all it has done is to distort the local labour and property markets. Some functions e.g. District Valuers offices have always been local.

DBC Reed said...

I did rather over-egg this because I get really fed -up with laissez faire libertarians who say the Guv can't do things because that would be Statist. Being the Guv makes everything you do Statist surely?
I think things are now so bad especially with house prices and rents and the knock-on effects of young households being skint that
a major intervention is inevitable: market forces are pushing in disastrously the wrong direction (of just overinvesting in property).We have had a global financial collapse because of house prices and are heading for another one.
Jobs should be decanted out of the SE and London and the deindustrialised North repopulated with people with jobs.
Everybody goes on about building more houses.But where? There is not the room in London. If Hull and the East Coast has such low land prices why is n't investment going in there already?
As Enoch Powell said centralised public sector action and diffuse decentralised private sector investment seems to go in eras and waves.Time for a real Plan B.

Lola said...


"We have had a global financial collapse because of house prices and are heading for another one. It was / is the other way about. Mad money policies and ludicrous bureaucratic interventions and the Euro drove malinvestment in housing here. in the US, Ireland, Spain etc etc. And yes, we are heading for another bout of failure, for precisely the same reasons. Government failure.

Bayard said...

DBCR, there is a lot to be said for decentralisation and it was once official policy, or why else is the DVLA in Swansea and the Mint in Llantrisant (unkindly christened "The hole with the mint in it")? I suspect the concentration in the south-east has more to do with senior civil servants wanting to be near Westminster.

Regarding the aesthetics of new build, I think a lot of it is down to small-mindedness by the developers, penny-pinching at the design stage. Down in Dorset, there is a small builder/developer who has realised Mark's point that the mainly C19th houses that everyone likes are pretty much the same as each other and that a row of "C19th" cottages can be made to look different with only a few variations on a standard palette, also that the traditional layout of terraces only slightly set back from the road is very space-efficient and actually far more popular than the more "suburban" two and three bed detached with garage and largish front garden.

As to Andrew Motion and his NIMBYing in Laurie Lee land, what he is not pointing out is the perennial problem that the countryside is now full of people who live there because they want to live there, and have moved there. They have had to pay for the element of the FBRI encapsulated in the surroundings of their new home (old cottages, rural pub, view of green fields etc) and want to be able to charge the next owner the same. Things that impinge on the FBRI, like new housing estates instead of green fields reduce the value of the FBRI element of their house value and therefore are naturally resisted.

And finally, we don't need any more houses. People do not build houses to serve a public need, they build them to make money. If there wasn't money to be made, no-one, except the government, would build houses, even if a quarter of the population was homeless. There is no demand for housing per se, there is only a demand to start climbing the "housing ladder" that is propped against the magic money tree of land speculation. If we built a million houses a year and they were all for rent only, they'd mostly remain empty.

DBC Reed said...

I believe it was official policy even in the Thirties.There was then one report that firms moved their head offices to London because the senior managers' wives fancied the shopping.With the improvement in communications' technology I don't think there is any reason why any public sector big employers should be in London where the land prices are so high.
This goes for private sector headquarters as well but the public sector is all that the State ( yes that word)can control.

Lola said...

DBCR - it's been happening for years. Lots of state functions are carried out locally and always have been. The HMRC DV offices, Local tax offices, local DVLA offices, Health Boards, Education matters etc etc. Clearly lots of these have been shut down and centralised for efficiency reasons, and often because technology makes them redundant.

Overall the state will shrink...actually that's not necessarily true....

We seem to be at a time of bifurcation, one route will lead inevitably to smaller government more liberty etc., the other choice will lead us towards some form of dictatorship. In either case government will become more centralised. In the former because it will be vastly smaller, in the latter because in dictatorships centralisation of power is a basic requirement.

Furthermore, you'll have the devil of a job winkling the entrenched functionaries out of their comfortable bunkers, not in the least because they will not want to move away from the centre of power.

Also, I am not sure I approve of wholesale authoritarian disruption of peoples lives.

DBC Reed said...

Tell you the truth ,I was thinking that getting the entrenched civil servants out of London might be one way of ensuring their independence. Clearly some considerable part of their work must be in lobbying the political parties and being schmoozed by them in turn over a few drinks in the Reform Club (this being the only club I have ever been wined and dined in- then dropped like a hot potato).
Since political parties can operate in political conference venues perfectly easily, the obsession with the Palace of Wetminster could easily be broken.
Such a strategic dispersal would also get the Press off the backs of the more colourful and independent-minded politicians.
I believe the reason monarchs liked to keep the nobility under one roof at, say, Versailles is so they could keep their eyes on them .More dispersal, more plotting I would hope.
As well as the house-price benefits: all these people forced out of London (the way they do housing benefits claimants) would leave plenty of housing opportunities for incomers.