Blair and Brown Show Threatens Our Countryside


There is a theory that we elect politicians mainly for their entertainment value.  If so, we have certainly had our money’s worth over the past few weeks.  The Tony and Gordon show, John – keep the spare Jag – Prescott and his affairs may seem like a harmless form of reality TV.  But unlike Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity, these shenanigans have real consequences, including some changes proposed to the planning system, which seriously threaten our countryside, our towns and villages.


Ten years ago Devon, like much of southern England, was facing plans to concrete over much of its countryside, whilst cities like Plymouth were losing population at the rate of a thousand a year.  Dozens of protest groups like SHARD (South Hams Against Rural Destruction) sprung up across the country, forcing the issue up the political agenda.  Then in 2000 John Prescott’s department announced a change in policy: urban regeneration, brownfield targets, plans to bring people back into our towns and cities.  Several ‘experts’ in the planning world said it wouldn’t work, claimed you couldn’t ‘buck the market’, failing to understand how effective planning can help to create new markets.


Take a walk around the centre of Exeter or particularly Plymouth today and a skyline of cranes will show you how wrong they were.  Over two thirds of new housing is built on brownfield sites, at higher densities, today.  Of course many problems remain: a desperate shortage of affordable housing thanks to decades of ‘right to buy’ and underinvestment, exacerbated in some areas by the growing evil of the second home.  Ministers talk of ‘a step change’ in public transport use, whilst cutting back train and bus services in this region.  But compared to 1998, 4,000 homes which would have spread across the Devon and Cornish countryside are now helping to reverse decades of decline in Plymouth.  Who would argue that we have moved forward? Well, the economists at the Treasury would, and this is where the Westminster soap opera is threatening to impinge on all our lives.


Whilst waiting for a vacancy next door, Gordon Brown has been extending his influence beyond the remit of his own department.  In 2003 he appointed an economist, Kate Barker, to examine and recommend far-reaching changes to the planning system.  A friend of mine knows a young graduate appointed to work for the Barker committee who admitted her trepidation on taking the job, as she knew nothing about planning.  Barker herself understands the economics of the housing market but has never worked in, and has no qualifications in planning, which was probably deliberate – a bit like appointing Jeremy Clarkson to investigate the rail system.


The lack of understanding is apparent in the first Barker report of 2004.  Amongst its more extreme recommendations was one to allocate huge swathes of open countryside as buffer zones.  Developers could submit planning applications to build anywhere in these zones, at any time.  “Market forces” would determine whether each application was accepted or rejected.


This recommendation was not entirely adopted, but the draft planning policy on housing published in December would require authorities to allocate more greenfield land in response to rising house or land prices.  As many planners have pointed out, in some places no amount of building will ever satisfy the potential demand from people seeking to move there: central London, Bath, or the coast of Devon and Cornwall, for example.


Having won half the battle on housing, Barker’s second inquiry is now looking into land use.  Fifteen subtly loaded questions betray what the committee is already expecting to recommend: further weakening of controls on building outside of towns and cities.  Many in the planning profession sense behind these moves an attack on their existence.  The timing may be coincidental but free-market think tank the Adam Smith Institute recently published a report calling for the whole planning system to be scrapped.  A speaker from another think tank, who addressed the Devon Rural Futures Conference last month made a similar point – arguing that people should be free to build on Dartmoor, for example.


Abolishing planning officers, like abolishing traffic wardens, may sound like a good idea, until you consider what life would be like without them.  Planning in the USA is largely decentralised.  Some states have regional plans, in others the free market rules.  Last year I cycled across North Carolina, through ‘towns’ with populations no bigger than our villages, miles wide, interspersed with staggering numbers of derelict houses, trailers and shops.  In some of these places the only life could be found on bypasses ringed with motels and drive-in restaurants.  Why bother redeveloping a derelict site when it’s cheaper to leave it and build further out?


Another consequence of this dispersal was a total absence of public transport – tricky if you live in a hurricane zone without a car! Things, we may hope, will never reach such a point over here, but the orthodox economists who rule the Treasury, given a free hand, would like to move us in that direction.


From a strong department with responsibility for planning, we might expect some resistance.  First signs from the new Department for Communities and Local Government are not encouraging.  Ruth Kelly, demoted from Education, assumes a hotch-potch of wider responsibilities than Prescott, her predecessor, with representation in the cabinet reduced from two seats to one.


In its submission to Barker, the Royal Town Planning Institute betrays the weariness of a profession misunderstood.  “If spatial planning did not exist”, they argue, “the market would have to invent it”. Like social workers, planners incur public wrath because they mediate between conflicting interests: damned when they do intervene and damned when they don’t.  But effective planning is an essential element of a civilised society, an absolute necessity in a country as densely populated as ours.


John Prescott may be remembered more for his departure than his time in office, but if Labour’s infighting allows the Treasury’s hatchet squad to reverse his main achievement, we may all have cause to regret his passing.


Steve Melia was founder member of SHARD (South Hams Against Rural Destruction), which has campaigned since 1998 to reduce the scale of greenfield building in the district.  He is now a researcher in urban and transport planning at University of the West of England