Sowing Bricks

The Conservatives, one-time party of the countryside, continue to plot their destructive, and self-destructive, course. Planning Minister Nick Boles told Newsnight this week that he wants to concrete-over 1,500 square miles, twice the area of Greater London, though he didn’t seem quite sure of the figures. Never mind. A million acres. Or thereabouts. Did he put his foot in his mouth himself, or was it put there on the orders of the Cameron/Osborne axis? You can already hear the Torygraph baying for his blood and they’re not the sort who pause to listen attentively when a former think-tank whizz-kid invites them to think the unthinkable.

Boles’ performance under cross-examination from Jeremy Paxman, and from Paxman’s other guests, was lamentable. Was it really the best he, or the Government he represents, could possibly have done with the material? Was it all just an act, part of some deeper, more sinister strategy? Or are Coalition Ministers every bit as thick as they sound, in Boles’ case like a twin of Michael Gove? These are the clowns giving orders to Wessex, the men and women making key decisions and directing billions of our money here, there and everywhere. We could do so much better without them.

Challenged to explain how building on farmland could be ‘sustainable development’, Boles hadn’t a clue. He acknowledged that there are ‘choices to be made’. Too right there are. Potentially between allowing your children the moral right to a house with a garden and allowing your grandchildren the means to avoid starving to death. Boles swerved by saying he’d avoid building on the better quality farmland but it was an evasive response showing just how little grasp he has of the issues inherent in his brief.

The MAFF Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) divides farmland into grades – 1, 2, 3a, 3b, 4 and 5. The top three are described as the ‘best and most versatile’ land, which it is most important to protect. These three make up about 40% of all English farmland, though with huge local variations. Does Boles think the rest is expendable? Apparently so. He just went on about being able to import our food from some ‘elsewhere’ that is magically expandable.

Even protection of the best land has nowhere near the priority it had 20 years ago, let alone in the earlier post-war decades. MAFF is now DEFRA and busy saving the whales. Where MAFF would routinely have sent expert witnesses to public inquiries, DEFRA plays no active part in the town and country planning system. It does not see its job as being to defend the national interest in the round. Councils are advised in general terms to protect the best land, where possible, but they are told in even starker terms to get those houses built. They have neither the expertise nor the incentive to make up for the lack of any long-term strategy for food security. It ought to be worrying that Whitehall’s own staff dealing with these issues have been run down or privatised to such an extent that the issues themselves have dropped below the radar. There was a similar rundown of experienced technical staff in local government who dealt with flooding and drainage. Those teams have had to be painfully rebuilt at speed over the past five years.

ALC maps are very colourful to look at but they can mislead. In most areas they represent the results of surveys carried out at quite a coarse grain. More detailed site-specific surveys often reveal large pockets of higher grade land that would otherwise be missed. In some areas, such as the Somerset Levels or the Vale of Pewsey, and around many of our market towns, so much land is high-grade that development, if it occurs, cannot go anywhere else. The old planning technique of sieve-mapping was to overlay all the constraints to development and build on the land that still showed blank through the layers. The problem today is that those easy sites are gone and councils have to decide what is least precious and can be sacrificed for the least offence caused. It is an increasingly desperate process of cannibalising our surroundings.

The Daily Fail managed to come up with some cracking answers to the problem. Build on all that derelict urban railway land we can see from the train as we arrive for work. (And how will residents get around in the post-oil future, when additional tracks need to be re-laid?) Cut public sector pay in the provinces so that ‘wealth creators’ will be attracted out of the congested South East to areas in need of regeneration. (In areas of high unemployment, labour is a buyer’s market, so wage rates in one sector have no effect on the wage rates that can be offered in the other, only on staff turnover. But cutting them in either sector deflates the regional economy. Lower wages in the private sector reflect the transport costs associated with distance from the centre of power and wealth and so would not rise even if public sector wages were cut. But it might become very difficult to find a nurse or a policeman in Devon, especially one able to afford to live there. Regional variations in pay have pros and cons but there’s something particularly backward about regionalising pay rates while NOT regionalising power over all the other things that make up the big picture, like second “homes”.) It’s a depressing fact that those with real influence over policy-making in the United Kingdom of London & the Home Counties haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about, or of the damage they can do.

Meanwhile, we still have that ‘housing shortage’. Except that it’s nothing of the kind. Quite the reverse. It’s a population excess. And who’s to blame for it? Boles pointed the finger at Labour’s thirteen-year reign of error. And quite right too. It was reckless to open the doors to all the world’s waifs and strays and allow the population to rise by millions. And Labour now admits it. But Boles is part of a government that came to power promising to put right Labour’s mistakes. What has actually been done? There’s still nothing that resembles a credible joined-up strategy on immigration, border controls and welfare. And putting right mistakes doesn’t mean accepting unsustainable population growth as if it’s something that can’t now be reversed. PAY folk to emigrate. Over the medium term, it’s the cheapest option, avoiding the need for utterly unaffordable levels of spending on new infrastructure. Over the long term, it’s the only option that staves off catastrophe as fertile families multiply and fertile land declines.

But in the short term? Nothing will happen. London politicians are too indebted, in every sense, to the City to see the noose they’ve made for themselves. The political Ponzi scheme demands a growing population to create a growing workforce and a growing tax base with which to reward favoured interest groups. Legal fictions require interest to be paid as agreed, even when the real economy has no hope of sustaining the means to do so without consuming the ‘natural capital’ of our countryside. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with creative accountancy.

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