Saturday, 10 September 2011

New Tories: The Enemies of England

In the past few weeks, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, the Chancellor, George Osborne, and a junior minister who, frankly, deserves nothing but complete anonymity so that his brief political career can vanish from the memory of men, have been orchestrating a determined effort to so drastically redraft planning law, that elected local councils will be obliged, either by government inspectors or the courts, to approve practically any planning application which the applicant claims is of economic value. To this end, planning guidelines which are currently more than a thousand pages long, will be cut to an entirely arbitrary fifty pages.

Medawar is all in favour of "cutting out red tape", but there's a difference between concise legislation, which states Parliament's intent in a few words of clear and unmistakable meaning allowing no room for misinterpretation, and truncated legislation, which leaves everything important unstated or undefined and allows almost any self-serving interpretation to be placed on a document which no longer has a clear meaning or, indeed, any useful purpose other than the feeding of lawyers.

Because arbitrarily-truncated planning guidelines cannot clearly guide, any obviously destructive proposed developments which government planning inspectors actually reject, will invariably be reinstated through the courts, because the guidelines don't support any grounds for rejection clearly enough for a judge to over-ride the stated preference for development to take place. The guidelines may indeed contain the comforting suggestion that planning applications might be denied, in exceptional circumstances, but the fiddly definitions which would allow a judge to actually identify those circumstances are in the thousand pages being disposed of.

The existing planning guidelines run to more than a thousand pages, primarily because in the eighty odd years since the Greenbelt was devised, crooked property developers have been so inventive in their attempts to run rings around legislation meant for the long-term public good. If Property Developers as a class had tried nothing on, the guidelines would be no longer now than they were in 1927.

All this is being justified by invoking the current economic crisis, with the suggestion that dissenters are madmen threatening the economic recovery.

The Greenbelt's predecessor (urban development boundaries, determined locally by Urban District Councils) and other basic planning tools were introduced after the British General Strike and just before the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. They were not abandoned in those extremely hard economic times, because the Statesmen of the time saw that planning law would ensure that the country remained habitable for the long term, whilst they were trying to encourage short-term economic growth. Planning law was the safety net under the high wire that Chancellors Baldwin and Chamberlain were performing on. Planning law takes care of the long term while Statesmen and Captains of Industry deal with any crisis.

We do not have Statesmen and Captains of Industry these days: we have career politicians, property developers and oligarchs, and there is no comparison.

The greenbelt was partly a conscious rebuff on the part of Thomas Sharp, to the "Garden City Movement" which believed that if developments were made leafy enough, destroyed countryside wouldn't be missed. The recent vogue for "eco-towns" and "sustainable development" suggests that this error has not entirely died yet. Sharp saw that the countryside was something distinct from the town, that it had a unique value of its own, and that it was in the interests of both town and countryside for the distinction to remain. One of the important differences between the two is the timescale: the English countryside has been shaped by the activities of man as surely as any new town, such as Milton Keynes, but that process has taken thousands of years and in most of the British Isles, it is perfectly possible for an informed and caring eye perceive the entire progression from the copper age to the early twenty-first century. Towns can keep an identity for centuries, or they can be transformed beyond recognition in a couple of decades, but the countryside is where thousands of years of gradual change can be seen. The importance of this to human life and understanding transcends all immediate and political argument, or ought to. The Statesmen who saw the United Kingdom out of the Great Depression were prepared to accept this, the career politicians who are dabbing ineffectually at the current financial crisis (which they largely made for themselves), show no such wisdom.

As with the Cameron government's attempts to do away with the Forestry Commission, (from which they were forced to retreat, still protesting that their inane policy was somehow right but "misunderstood" by us, the little people,) the current policy is the product of "advice" from highly partial sources which deliberately excludes any counter-argument, sound advice or even dissenting opinion, from any other source. The genesis of the new planning laws may be close to that forestry policy in more than one way, in that the same very narrow interests might profit from it. A recent article in the Daily Telegraph offers a potential mechanism whereby a bad idea which benefits only a handful of extremely wealthy property developers, might be the only one that actually reaches the ears of ministers. Lobbyists don't just pay political parties and ministerial advisers to put their client's views to the minister: they pay for the minister not to hear any others.

Another article, in The Guardian, will give Medawar's readers a shrewd idea of why the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party's idealistic and "green" coalition partners, have sabotaged almost every Conservative policy goal, except this one.

Quite apart from issues of the Greenbelt and the countryside, the truncated planning guidelines will basically leave it up to market forces to prevent a property developer building houses on sites which will inevitably endanger anyone who lives there. This is based on a complete misunderstanding of how market forces work: they do not require developers to refrain from building houses which will kill their customers, market forces merely require the developer to get the customer's bank draft into his first account, and then transferred overseas, before it rains.

Medawar would like to close with his own observation, which is different from, but not in opposition to, the theories of Thomas Sharp. Landscapes are not always valuable because they have an immediate and striking beauty on the large scale, which would gain them the status of "Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty" which the Prime Minister is claiming will lead to protection even under the new laws. (The Slad Valley is a designated AONB, the setting of Laurie Lee's iconic novel, Cider with Rosie, and it's now going to be built on by one of the developers which has given the Prime Minister's party money.)

Sometimes, the value of a landscape lies in all the information about ourselves, going back thousands of years, that it contains. Sometimes, the value of a landscape is in the way it inspired brave men to sacrifice their lives for something greater, especially in the fight against Nazism. And most of all, the value of a landscape is sometimes in the very small things it contains and gives a home to, which developers and the new breed of "conservative" politicians simply pay no heed to. As was said when John Major's government slid into an abyss of sleaze and incompetence: these are conservatives who will not conserve anything!

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