Each time CPRE branches get together, many of us find ourselves thinking that there is more to alarm us, and more to fight for, than there was last time. I don’t think this reflects simply the pessimism of advancing age, but rather the reality of political developments. For the past two years, our agenda has been dominated by this government’s dramatic commitment to building huge numbers of new homes, especially in the south of England, without seriously addressing their impact on the countryside, the supporting resources and infrastructure they will need. I suppose we should really have started today’s proceedings by proposing a vote of thanks to John Prescott’s diary secretary. Her efforts have removed from control of housing and planning one of the most insensitive ministers ever to be given licence to despoil the English countryside. But no sooner had Mr.Prescott moved on to croquet lawns new, than he was succeeded by Ms.Ruth Kelly. Her department, which we regard as one of the most important in government, where mistakes and failures impose such far-reaching consequences upon the shape of Britain, seems doomed to be run by people who are put there after failing somewhere else. We were given Mr.Prescott after his ignominious removal from Transport. Now, we have Ms.Kelly after her expulsion from Education. She began her regime by making a speech in which she said that too many people in the countryside are ‘too protective of their own space’. It is hard to avoid thinking that she meant this as an attack on people like us, gathered here today, and on the CPRE as an institution.
The government has made it plain that it proposes to implement the report of Gordon Brown’s adviser Kate Barker who who proposed in 2004 to lower the price of houses by building enough to flood the market. That document was founded upon beliefs and assumptions which CPRE’s experts comprehensively demolished. Yet it has becoming official policy. Only one thing stands in the way of its implementation, according to government: our dreary, boring, restrictive, old-fashioned, so-not-21st-century planning system. This time, Ms.Barker is expected to detail ideas for new legislation to emasculate planning, to accelerate the great banquet of development the government wants. We must obviously wait to hear the details before CPRE decides how to respond, but it is hard to be optimistic. The central message from Downing Street and the Treasury is that the government wants a great many new houses, and is infinitely less particular about where these go than we believe that they should be.
It is an extraordinary and indeed tragic thing, that at a time when more and more people are demanding that powers over their own lives should be entrusted to local bodies, kept out of the meddling hands of Whitehall, this government shows itself ever more committed to centralisation. Again and again, in every walk of life, ministers highlight their belief in the doctrine that the man or woman from the ministry knows best, that neither parishes nor districts nor counties should be allowed any significant say in the future of the places in which we live. They don’t want to listen. They don’t want to learn. They don’t want to read the formidable evidence and arguments amassed and presented by such bodies as CPRE, to show why Whitehall is seldom, if ever, the right place to lay down the law about what happens to Chipping Sodbury or Encombe or Market Overton.
It would be good to suppose that, as British politics changes and there is a revival of real opposition- a serious prospect of an alternative government- the Conservative Party would be offering a vigorous alternative to Labour’s vision of an English countryside dominated by brick and concrete. Alas, another of the saddest developments of the past few months has been a rash of speeches and statements from the Tory leadership , who appear no more sympathetic to the rural landscape than is Labour’s front bench. They, too, say that they want to see a dramatic expansion of house-building. Their view is founded, to a large degree, upon the belief that Harold Macmillan’s big house-building programme in the 1950s did much to keep the Conservatives in power for 12 years. They think it might do the same half a century later. It is dismaying to perceive a cross-party consensus evolving, committed to huge-scale greenfield development plans. A few months ago, the Tory thinktank Policy Exchange published a series of pamphlets arguing for the easing of planning controls, the opening-up of farmland to development, in terms that Gordon Brown and Kate Barker would applaud. PE explicitly declared itself to be attacking CPRE’s view of the future.