“The Green Belt is a Labour achievement, and we mean to build on it.”
John Prescott, 1998
Last Saturday, at the AGM of the Swindon-based National Trust, its chairman, Sir William Proby, announced plans to buy up Green Belt land threatened by Labour’s housebuilding craze. Sir William’s critics are wrong to see anything extraordinary about this: the Trust’s founders were passionate in their defence of open land. Its first chairman, Sir Robert Hunter, came to the Trust from another body that now has its headquarters in Wessex: what is known today as the Open Spaces Society, based in Henley-on-Thames.
With the passing of the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act by a Labour government, it might have been thought that the countryside was safe and the need for voluntary action superseded. Sadly, not so. Labour can dress things up as it likes: ‘sustainable urban extensions’, ‘sustainable new communities’, ‘eco-towns’. The public aren’t fooled by greenwash: they know State-sponsored sprawl when they see it. The reason why Sir William only merits two cheers is that the drive for population growth hasn’t been confronted head-on. Overcrowding is with us now, not some time in the future. Under Labour, extreme opposition is needed to have even the slightest hope of preventing ecocide. Infiltration, protest, legal challenge, civil disobedience, as well as so-called ‘criminal damage’ on development sites will doubtless all play a role.
Labour apologists have been quick to condemn the Trust for defying the will of a democratically elected government. The reality is quite different. Elected by just over 20% of registered voters, Labour can claim no mandate from the other 80%. But a recent poll showed that just over 80% of us are Nimbys (Not in My Back Yard); only 20% are happy to see their surroundings destroyed by the ‘greed is good’ mentality now poisoning our political life. Labour 20%; Nimbys 80%. Do the arithmetic before pontificating about democracy.
So who represents the Nimbys in Parliament? Not Labour, apparently. Their ‘Communities’ Secretary, Hazel Blears, has declared war on us.
How about the Conservatives? Hoots of laughter all round. They started the current trend of destruction back in the days when Tarzan served the Wicked Witch. When Berkshire County Council fought back against imposed housing targets, one London editorial thundered that if Berkshire is not willing then Berkshire must be coerced. So much for local democracy. The Conservatives ultimately did more than coerce Berkshire; they abolished it, putting an end to over one thousand years of county government. So much for conservation, so much for conservatism.
We can move swiftly past the Libby-Dibbys, whose commitment to local democracy is demonstrably patchy and unprincipled.
The fact of the matter is that compromises with greed and pride have left the Nimby majority with no voice at Westminster. That institution is run for the benefit of the City of London and the politicians’ own egos. If we want democracy, then we must build our own. The Wessex Regionalists are committed to placing planning decisions with the people they specifically affect, in the parishes, and ending all Whitehall interference, without exception.
Half the problem with planning is the politicians, the other half is the planners. Politicians generally have insufficient grasp of the subject to notice when planners are pursuing their own agenda. Beware in particular of demographic projection, an advanced branch of sorcery that deserves to be taught at Hogwarts. That’s after the students have mastered cost-benefit analysis and sustainability appraisal, two further opportunities for garbage-in, garbage-out.
Planners’ professional body, the Royal Town Planning Institute, is at the forefront of moves to get the Green Belt scrapped. Many planners today are not employed publicly but privately, by developers, or in ‘planning consultancy’, a form of environmental prostitution. Their influence ensures that destructionists are the movers and shakers in the profession’s counsels and conservationists are in retreat. Even if this weren’t so, planning, with its emphasis on bricks and mortar, will always tend towards built solutions because these require the employment of more planners.
Built solutions are not the only kind. We could, for example, get a grip on migration, both into the UK and within it, by positive as well as negative measures. To help our young people get housed, we could have a system of local preference in parts of the housing market, as works well in the Channel Islands. We could impose punitive taxation on house price increases and on empty and second homes. If EU laws need to be set aside to achieve our aims, then we should get on and do just that; it’s called subsidiarity. What we need is much less planning but much better planning, as part of a more holistic approach to all policy-making. To get there we shall need to remove the pressures that now cause us such grief.
Alternatively, we can go on building on our farmland and let our grandchildren starve. In 2005, the UK was only 60% self-sufficient in food. That means we import 40%, from countries whose own swelling populations may lead them to cut off the supply long before the end of oil will force yields back to pre-industrial levels. Without food there is no freedom. Churchill once wrote that the only time he thought the war against Nazi Germany would be lost was when U-boats were sinking convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic. Today, the UK has 27% more population than it did back then, but less farmland, and, just for good measure, far fewer fossil fuel resources too. Wessex Regionalist policy has always been to re-invest with the ultimate aim of regional self-sufficiency in energy, nutrition and all essential manufacture.
Wessex Regionalists are not anti-change but, unlike other parties, we want to see change for the better, not change for change’s sake. So give your planners hell (they’ll hear plenty enough from developers). And replace your politicians. Because ‘living within environmental limits’ isn’t just a slogan. It’s a fact of life we evade at our peril.