CPRE Lecture

22nd September 2011

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.

CPRE has now produced a formidable rebuttal of Policy Exchange’s arguments.   Our own document, which is published today, shows that many of PE’s claims are founded on unsubstantiated assertions, and sometimes upon false or misleading statistics.   This is especially true of comparisons between housing in Britain and other nations.   For instance, PE made the bizarre claim that Britain, and even southern Britain, is not really overdeveloped.  Yet in reality, only Belgium and Holland have more of their land area covered in towns and cities.  CPRE rejects PE’s grim portrait of life in Britain’s cities.   Of course we need to keep working relentlessly to improve the quality of urban life, as CPRE has been urging for many years.   But PE’s notion that the secret of the British people’s future happiness is to get many more people out of cities and into new homes in the countryside seems fanciful, to put it politely.   PE seems to welcome ‘urban sprawl’, the progressive march of development into the countryside around our cities.  CPRE has campaigned for decades against this, because random development blights countryside for miles around it.  We believe that Policy Exchange is simply wrong about this.
PE claims that the new houses Britain is building are too small.   Yet given the desperate lack of space in this country, together with the fact that so many households today consist of only one person or at most two,  an emphasis on small units seems absolutely sensible.   Our vision of the future seems much closer to that of David Cameron, with his passionate commitment to all things green, than to that of Policy Exchange.    We are still hopeful that the longer Conservative shadow ministers look at these issues, the more they will come to understand that they should be fighting the battle alongside us, to sustain Britain’s planning system, which has served this country so well for so long.  It is simply not true that  planning is the great obstacle in the way of meeting Britain’s housing needs.   Annual housing output is today at its highest for fifteen years, much of this on brownfield sites.   What planning has done with enormous success for much of the past century is to save us from collective cannibalism, from destroying in our own society, or allowing the house building industry to do so, all the things which the British people claim most to love about this country.   There is a great opportunity here for the Opposition, to distance itself from the philistinism of present government policy.   It will be a tragedy for the countryside, if an undeclared cross-party coalition of politicians espouses policies which will do such harm to the landscape future generations will know.
The theme which runs through all government policy on housing and development is that no environmental or aesthetic consideration must be allowed to stand in the way of the great god of economic growth.    Now, every reasonable person knows that we must have better airports, better and sometimes bigger roads, and more houses for a growing population.   Our argument, however, is that when making the commitments and decisions, proper weight be given to their real cost to our society at large:  the huge pollution costs of cheap flights and increased car use;  the blighting of beauty by unplanned development.  Above all, perhaps, there is the issue of water.   CPRE has argued for years that ministers were reckless to mandate huge towns and suburban expansions, without seriously addressing their infrastructure needs, of which water represent the foremost and often most intractable problem.
Today, southern Britain is facing a water crisis of unprecedented proportions.  Most of us know that this is not just a passing matter of a dry summer, or poor winter rainfall.  It is an ongoing, very serious issue, founded in the fact that we are all using much more water than our overtaxed resources can provide.  It is not merely that reservoirs are low, it is that underground aquifers are also at alarming levels.   We manage water incredibly badly, and are going to have to learn how to do much better- to waste less water at home,  to compel water companies to steward their supplies more responsibly,  to harvest much more rainwater.  This will almost certainly mean more reservoirs in the south of England, which we should welcome.    Even if we improve dramatically our performance as providers and users of water,  it seems evident that an historic change is coming about.  We are being driven to recognise that resources of all kind, whose plenty we have taken for granted for generations, must in future be husbanded, and recognised as precious.  Against this background, it would be recklessly irresponsible to embark upon large scale housing development in southern England without clear and credible plans for how water supplies will be found for each project, in each area.   CPRE has already expressed special concern about the government’s housing plans for the Milton Keynes/South Midlands Growth Area, where there is a serious water shortage.   The Thames Gateway area is in other respects a highly suitable area for development, posessing many brownfield sites.  But since it also has the lowest rainfall in Britain, very high standards of water efficiency will be needed, to sustain supplies to new housing there.

If we, the public, must learn to live with water scarcity and teach ourselves to behave more sensibly, so too must our rulers.   The Environment Agency, which licences all water abstraction, is already thought to be careless in its approach in some areas, and especially heedless of the implications of excessive abstraction for our river systems.    What so often happens is that new houses are built, and once they exist the Agency feels unable to check the abstraction necessary to provide them with unlimited water, even when local river flows and levels are causing alarm.   The Agency ought properly to be leading the band for conservation, making the case for matching building development to available resources,  arguing the case for responsible water management, instead of allowing itself to be bludgeoning or blackmailed into supporting the demand-led practices of the past, which are simply no longer sustainable.
It is no exaggeration to say that the South-East of England is in danger of drying out, in consequence of water shortages, steadily worsening traffic congestion and pollution, and the ever-rising tide of household waste.    In the years ahead, contending with this reality and its implications will be a major challenge for our society, and also of course for CPRE.
I wish that I had been delivering less of a tale of woe today.  I wish we were able to tell each other that our society, and its rulers, were becoming more alive to the threats to the countryside and to our scarce natural resources, above all in southern England.  As it is, however, we face the familiar threats from pavement-oriented politicians, insensitive bureaucracies and richly-funded house builders,  with whom CPRE has been locked in combat for the past 80 years.  It is a formidable challenge.  Yet the stakes have never seemed more worth the struggle.  If we don’t do it, who else will ?  If CPRE’s formidable team of experts, the splendid staff of national office and our director and chairman, do not maintain the campaign with the help of all of you out here in the countryside, CPRE’s officers and supporters, there is no one else to do it.   You can pride yourselves that, if our organisation had not waged this battle for much of the past century, we should not today have so much left to defend.   I am confident that, with your aid, CPRE can achieve as much in our next eighty years as we have in our last.  Thank you all very much.

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