That Figures


The Campaign to Protect Rural England is good at collecting statistics.  It may be no more than a gnat on the side of the development elephant but at least it knows how to document the scale of the deception being practised upon us by the London regime.  However, there is rather more to the data than a first glance suggests.

Localism, we were promised.  Figures published by CPRE – in a pamphlet optimistically called A Landmark Year for the Countryside – show that in the last accounting year (2013/14), Whitehall overruled 67% of the major housing refusals by local councils.  In 2008/09 it overruled just 31%.  That’s a measure not so much of which party is in power or of philosophical attitudes to localism but of how far the easy solutions have been used up, leaving the controversial ones to follow.  There are currently plans to build 700,000 homes in the countryside, including 200,000 on Green Belt land. 

Government figures estimate that previously developed – ‘brownfield’ – land could accommodate 1.5 million homes, but 1.5 million isn’t enough for the population growth that the London parties favour.  And CPRE must know this, even if it won’t admit it: assuming 2 persons per home, the current net immigration rate of 250,000 a year, and even that no homes are sold to the existing population as it spreads out or re-locates, 1.5 million homes is only 12 years supply.  Besides, brownfield land is more expensive to develop, leading housebuilders to claim that in order to make a profit they’d have to charge housebuyers more.  Or reduce their contributions to local infrastructure.  Not only that, but some “brownfield” land is beautiful parkland, such as that surrounding Victorian asylums.  Some is deep in the countryside, such as disused airfields that might more rationally be dug up and returned to farmland.

There’s another statistical deception that also goes unnoticed.  It’s said that the supply of brownfield land is continually being renewed as old uses are abandoned, leaving factories, warehouses, hospitals and the like to be redeveloped.  That’s true, but if the uses are relocating to greenfield sites – which they often are – then countryside is lost just as if it had gone for housing.  We just don’t get so worked up about the figures because they aren’t presented in the same high-profile way.  It’s also assumed that non-housing uses have more of a ‘right’ to expand into the countryside, being socially or economically ‘essential’ and with less flexibility over where to locate.  It’s all part of the prejudice that measures development as ‘progress’ but is selective about measuring the loss to those rural environments into which development is progressing.  Successive governments – though not this one – have had targets for the proportion of housing built on brownfield sites.  None has dared have a target for any of the other uses.  And so no-one grasps the overall picture.  Politically, no-one wants to.  There’s something inherently negative about measuring the total loss of farmland rather than the increase of goodies that take its place.  Folk might even panic about where their future food will come from.  As well they might.

CPRE is a fine example of a safety valve, ‘moderately’ and deferentially expressing what needs to be uncompromising rage if it’s to be effective.  Its stance only serves to perpetuate the myth that planning decisions are essentially ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’, rather than bought by the development lobby through party donations aimed at changing national policy.  CPRE naively supports HS2, thinking it might reduce the building of new roads and runways.  It won’t.  You’ll have those too.  Its pamphlet congratulates its Northumberland branch for ensuring that 70% of new homes in and around Newcastle will be on brownfield sites.  So 30% will be on farmland?  Is that sustainable development?  If that’s the best that can be achieved on Tyneside – a depressed area if ever there was one – what chance does the Wessex countryside have?

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