Why are the Tories helping rip out the lungs of England?
Published in: Daily Mail
Once upon a time, the Conservative Party actually believed in conserving. At the very core of its being, it possessed a visceral desire to protect and preserve what was valuable — or indeed, invaluable — to our society.
If there was one issue above all others with which the party was closely identified, it was conserving the countryside.
Indeed, even when David Cameron decided that the Tories had to identify themselves with modernisation and change, the symbol he chose for the party was a tree.
That seemed to reflect both traditional conservative values and the fashionable preoccupation with the environment. Yet now it might seem that the party should change its symbol once again — to a tree torn up by its roots.
For the Government is trying to ram through nothing less than the destruction of swathes of the countryside by changing the planning laws to make it easier to build on greenfield sites.
Despite its claim that this will give local people more of a say in planning decisions, the reality is that — given the inbuilt presumption in favour of development — if local communities object to house- building, their opposition will be flattened along with the woods and hedgerows.
Even village greens will be under threat, since with communities being forced to pay up to £1,000 to apply to save green spaces from the developers, it is less likely they will do so.
In short, these plans would change much of England’s green and pleasant land into a continuous urban sprawl — what has been called the greatest threat to the countryside since World War II.
Even worse is the whiff of corruption that is beginning to emanate from these proposals. For over the past few days, the claim has surfaced that the Conservative Party’s palm is being greased by those who stand to gain financially from this change in the planning laws.
According to reports, dozens of property firms have given a total of £3.3 million to the party over the past three years, including large gifts from companies seeking to develop rural land.
In addition, it is claimed, property developers are paying thousands of pounds for access to senior Conservative MPs.
The Property Forum, a Tory donors’ club, is charging ‘key players’ within the industry £2,500 a year for breakfast meetings to ‘discuss current topics’ with top-ranking Conservatives.
The Forum raises around £150,000 a year for the Conservatives and is advertised prominently on the party’s website.
The Government has furiously denied that members of the Property Forum helped shape its proposals. But Michael Slade, the Forum’s chairman and chief executive of the property developer Helical Bar, has boasted that the donors’ club plays a key role in shaping the party’s planning policy. Not so much cash for access as cash for concrete.
Maybe this is an empty boast: but there’s worse still. At the weekend, there were further claims that senior figures in the house-building industry were involved in drafting these planning reforms — including an executive from the house-builder Taylor Wimpey.
Three out of a four-strong panel recruited by Housing Minister Greg Clark to help rewrite the planning regulations reportedly had some kind of personal involvement in the building industry. To add insult to injury, just about every minister involved in these proposals has blocked development proposals in his own back yard.
Chancellor George Osborne and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles opposed the building of waste facilities in their constituencies; Mr Pickles also opposed the building of an old people’s home.
Greg Clark, meanwhile, the minister who is leading these reforms, fiercely opposed the previous Labour government’s plan to build 6,000 new homes in and around his Tunbridge Wells constituency.
He called this proposal a ‘nationally imposed hike in housing numbers [that] will place yet more pressure on our precious green spaces’, and said brownfield sites must be the priority for building.
What a miraculous transformation appears to have taken place in Mr Clark’s brain! For now he is accusing those who are making exactly the same argument against his own proposals of ‘nihilistic selfishness’ on the grounds they are blocking homes for young couples.
As the opposition has mounted, the Government has even claimed it is being subjected to a ‘carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers’.
Ah yes — those rabid Left-wing revolutionaries of the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Chartered Institution of Water And Environmental Management and the Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds. Just who do ministers think they are kidding with this absurd claim?
Indeed, it’s the Government’s own battle-cry of ‘affordable housing’ which is actually the classic Left-wing position.
There’s no doubt that more houses are, indeed, urgently needed. Much of the reason for this lies with the ruinous policy of mass immigration pursued by the Labour government, as well as the breakdown of the family into multiple households.
If the immigration rate continues to skyrocket, by 2025 the population will have risen by some 11 million over 15 years. To cope, Britain would have to build the equivalent of some 22 cities. Rather than despoil the countryside, wouldn’t it be preferable to restrict immigration to sustainable levels?
Nevertheless, this is not the whole story. Official figures show more than 300,000 homes have been sitting empty for more than six months.
There is also said to be enough ‘brownfield’ or previously developed land for an additional three million homes. One reason this potential has not been turned into homes is that housing developers are reluctant to build when house prices are low as they will make less profit.
In other words, much could be done before having to resort to concreting over the countryside. Yet the Government appears determined instead on a course that offends the English in particular at a profound level.
For one of their special characteristics is their passionate love affair with the countryside. It plays a key part in England’s identity, celebrated as it is in its literature, music and art.
Its importance was specifically recognised in the post-war planning laws, which were designed to protect what was special and precious about the English landscape.
Indeed, it is surely not too fanciful to say the landscape is part of the English national character. It helps give it its solidity, rooting it in that which lies beyond the ephemeral constructs of mankind.
It helps the English to love their country. It elevates them through exposure to a store of natural beauty. It simply makes them feel better to be alive.
Yet much of this is to be destroyed in an act of sustained vandalism by a political party that laughably calls itself conservative, but instead intends to let the market rip out the very lungs of England.
The Chancellor says the existing planning laws act as a brake to economic growth. The refrain that everything in society has to be subordinate to economics sounds remarkably familiar. Wasn’t this supposed to be the ‘nasty party’ philistinism that Mr Cameron was determined to bury?
Didn’t the Cameroons arrive at the blinding realisation that there was more to a civilised society than market forces? Has the Chancellor decided to reverse direction on that particular road to Damascus?
The Government is having an increasingly desperate fight to ram these changes through because it has brilliantly managed to unite the Right and the Left against it.
Conservatives have watched with dismay as the Cameroons have ridden roughshod over one conservative principle after another. However, it is in the meadows and copses of England that Mr Cameron may meet his Waterloo.