Roger Scruton says that it’s time for rural residents to protect the land they love by clubbing together and buying it
If you look at an electoral map of England, you will discover that most of it is blue, the occasional pockets of red corresponding to the large conurbations. Rural England is Tory and always has been. It is not surprising, therefore, if our present government has little affection for the countryside, or if it is always looking for new ways either to punish rural voters or to destroy the idyll that nourishes their dissent. No character in politics more clearly embodies this anti-rural sentiment than John Prescott, whose plans to Balkanise England, to centralise planning and to jettison the green belt have caused alarm and despondency in the shires. But it is clear that Mr Prescott’s policies belong to a general movement of ideas and attitudes which has spread through many of the institutions that have the countryside as their ostensible cause — including the Countryside Commission, Defra and many environmental lobby groups.
Town and country were once clearly demarcated from each other, with industry occurring in the first and agriculture in the second. Around agriculture were gathered the small trades and support networks required by family farming, and around those networks in turn there congregated the incomers and retired people whose dreams were nurtured by the thought and the sight of old-fashioned husbandry. The decline of farming and its gradual replacement by agribusiness imply that those employed to think about the countryside must look for new uses for the land; and their guiding principles are those of New Labour: innovation, diversity and the breakdown of the old forms of social privilege, including the privilege of a rural view. Hence wind power, the right to roam, the ban on hunting and the decision to break into the idyll wherever possible with houses, roads and business parks. The rural idyll is seen as the enemy: the state of mind that has prevented progress, has ossified rural development and has kept the shires in the state of cultural backwardness whose living proof is given at every election, with that hideous spread of blue across the map.
Of course the contours of the countryside are changing. The patterns made by traditional farming have begun to fade, road-mania has filled the landscape with noise, and the night sky has been burned away by light pollution. But our planning laws have framed the English countryside and prevented its suburbanisation. The landscape is everywhere around us, confining the towns, and soothing the eyes and minds of those who glimpse it as they pass. It has remained this way as a result of artifice. Local opinion, local planners and strict planning laws — themselves inspired by the movement against ribbon development that began between the wars — have made it difficult or impossible to build outside the towns, and have controlled the size, shape and materials of rural buildings, with a view to ensuring that they will not intrude on the view.
Many people oppose this, believing not only that our planning practices express an unsustainable preference for aesthetic over economic criteria, but also that they have served to ‘aestheticise’ the countryside, turning it from a source of productive life into an open-air museum. Others, however — and membership figures for the National Trust and the CPRE suggest that they may well be the majority — welcome the laws and institutions that have preserved the face of England. For they see the countryside as an icon of national identity — perhaps the best that we have left, as a symbol of our common membership. In the battle between the Prince of Wales and the developers, they support the Prince of Wales; and if there is to be building in the countryside, they believe, let it be conceived as Poundbury was conceived, as an embellishment rather than an intrusion. On the whole they do not regret the fact that farm buildings are being rapidly converted into second homes, as long as the farmers go on farming and the homes look right. And when they refer to ‘unspoilt countryside’ they do not mean countryside ploughed by teams of horses, but simply a landscape developed in gentle and sensitive ways.
Until now, such people have relied on the planning system to uphold their vision. But the planning laws are now under attack. They were reasonable responses, it is said, when they protected the vital interests of farmers. But they are obstacles not only to agribusiness but also to all other attempts to find new uses for the land: just witness the hoo-ha over wind farms and phone masts. Local planners respond to local pressures from local communities, which always try to protect their privileges by excluding incomers and saying no to visual innovation. Hence, it is said, we must now jettison the principle behind the old Town and Country Planning Acts — the principle, implied in their title, that town and country must be kept distinct.
In any case a huge and damaging hole has been blown in these Acts by the unpredicted but in retrospect inevitable impact of the Human Rights Act, which confers privileges on minorities that the majority are not entitled to claim. This fundamentally racist legislation has meant that gypsies and other ‘travellers’ can take advantage of the desperate condition of the farmers, in ways that are forbidden to the rest of us. Travellers are now buying up farming land, converting it overnight into caravan parks, and thereafter claiming a right of settlement in the teeth of existing planning laws. This tactic has the result — surely agreeable to the New Labour policy-makers — that the houses in which the retired middle classes have invested their savings can lose their value overnight, while new forms of industry (admittedly largely invisible to the taxman) establish themselves under their quivering Tory noses.
What should be our response to this? It is surely possible to reclaim the countryside as our national icon without coating it in aspic. But we can no longer rely on either the planning laws or the farmers to secure this result. Rural residents must therefore take power into their own hands, and it is encouraging that they have already done this in the matter of the Hunting Act, holding this law to ridicule by showing that it cannot be enforced. It is now time for them to exercise their power in other and more demanding ways. For instance, they have a duty, which only now is beginning to dawn on them, to rescue the farmers on whose work they have relied for their visual privileges. Neighbours should club together to buy small parcels of land from any desperate farming neighbour, thereafter renting it back to him at a peppercorn rent. This we have done in our neighbourhood, so saving ourselves both from travellers and agribusiness, by injecting needed capital into a family farm.
Planning laws of our kind are greeted in America as unthinkable interferences in the right of property. Instead of entrusting the landscape to the state, neighbours agree to place their land in ‘scenic easement’. This involves amending the title of the property so as to exclude unsightly development. Similar procedures could be adopted in England, and they would have the advantage of compelling the people who enjoy scenic privileges to make a real sacrifice in order to retain them.
It is an important principle, which our socialist legacy has tended to obscure, that people are more likely to achieve a goal when they have invested in it than when they have relinquished it to officials. We are seeing the dangers of entrusting to the state a work of conservation and renewal that should have been the business of the local communities which enjoy the result. If we wish to retain our countryside, it is up to us who live there to make the necessary sacrifices. And this means offering our support to the family farm, buying threatened land, supporting rural institutions and general
ly making ourselves immune to decisions made in faraway Westminster.
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