Concreting over the countryside

‘The reality is that, under this government’s stewardship, a plethora of damaging developments have been unleashed in the countryside. Historic hedgerows are being grubbed up. Ancient woodlands are being bulldozed’

Ros Coward

A renewed appreciation of nature was one positive thing to have come out of the first lockdown. Or so we were led to believe by media commentators who eulogised about finding new pleasures in closely observing the beautiful spring of that period. Some, normally too busy to notice small changes, found joy in gardening. For others, it was the first time they had properly listened to birds in the parks or seen the stars clearly in unpolluted skies. This rediscovery of nature and its healing powers became a lockdown cliché. “From listening to birds, to feeling the sun on skin,” said the Metro newspaper, “people are realising how much happiness can be found in the simplicity of nature.”

The next time we were locked down, I hoped we would be spared further commentary of this kind. Because real evidence of a renewed appreciation of nature has been distinctly lacking. In fact, everywhere I have been recently I have witnessed abuse of nature, whether it is private indifference, vast housing developments on previously undeveloped countryside or infrastructure projects laying waste to precious wildlife habitats. The widely shared image of the felling of the 250-year-old Cubbington pear tree, inconveniently in the way of HS2, encapsulated this despoliation.

Having been an active environmentalist for many years it was initially exciting to hear commentators rhapsodising about the natural world. I even began to believe there might be a chance that the loss of species and their habitats would become a priority. Of course, it soon became clear most people were untouched by any real new reverence for nature. It wasn’t just the shocking scenes of litter-strewn beaches and parks, or the fly tipping which exploded along our already littered verges or, to add insult to injury, the casually discarded surgical gloves and masks which became a common sight on pavements. It was also evident from many home renovation projects which sprang back into life after lockdown that, whatever the fine words, nature wasn’t a consideration. In London where I live, I haven’t seen a single new garden created or a single barren space turned into a green sanctuary. Instead builders are at their usual work, ripping out hedges and plants, replacing them with railings and tarmac.

This disconnection between what is said about nature and what is done is especially acute when it comes to the government. Boris Johnson is full of fine words but they are never translated into action. In recent months he’s spoken about the environment in two UN speeches and in his Conservative Party Conference speech he gave his support for both the recovery of nature and the protection of green belts, digressing with a long fantasy about an idyllic future Britain in which families would picnic in “wild belts” amid flourishing flora and fauna. Needless to say, he promises the UK will set “world beating standards” in nature protection, animal welfare and energy policy. Yet the Environment Bill, which would give the opportunity to do this, has not been prioritised, instead moving sluggishly through parliament. Now that it has finally resurfaced, the focus is more on green “industry” and climate than protecting nature.

The reality is that, under this government’s stewardship, a plethora of damaging developments have been unleashed in the countryside. Historic hedgerows are being grubbed up. Ancient woodlands are being bulldozed.

Locals are horrified at the loss of beloved beauty spots, shocked at the apparent hypocrisy of their political leaders. In Greater Manchester, objectors are reeling from the allocation of 6,000 houses to be built on Carrington Moss, an irreplaceable 10,000-year-old peat moor, which has an important role in carbon capture and is home to more than 20 red-listed bird species. This development, described by campaigners as “scandalous, disgusting, insane” is supported by the local council even though local politicians, including Mayor Andy Burnham, have previously expressed support for a Greater Manchester Wetlands Improvement Area.

Many rural communities are waking up to the implications of the Government’s £27 billion road-building plans. In Norfolk, campaigners are desperately trying to stop the ecologically devastating Wensum Link, a four-lane highway that will cut through precious habitat of endangered species including the rare Barbastelle bat. In Sussex, the Highways Agency has announced its preferred route for the Arundel bypass across an unspoilt landscape. The Woodland Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the Wildlife Trusts all oppose the new road, arguing that it will fragment habitat for dormice, endanger bat populations and ruin rare fenland. Campaigners call it a “climate-wrecking dual carriageway” that will cause “serious destruction of landscape and wildlife”.

Road plans like these always have wider consequences. Consider the so-called Oxford-Cambridge “Growth Arc” where plans to link roads to each university town via Milton Keynes are accompanied by ambitions to develop the corridor and build one million more homes. There has already been significant purchasing of land around this proposed route by developers. According to the CPRE, if this development goes ahead it will be a significant urbanisation of some of the last stretches of tranquil English countryside.

The eco-vandalism associated with HS2 sums up how little nature really matters to the Johnson administration. Work started as soon as Lockdown One ended and the scenes which followed were deeply upsetting. The Cubbington pear tree and its woodlands in Warwickshire are a tiny part of this destructive rampage. Calvert Jubilee Nature reserve in Buckinghamshire, which for decades had been tended and loved by volunteers for the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, has been trashed. Ancient trees have been felled, the rich wildlife habitat is now a flattened muddy track. Estelle Bailey, chair of the trust, said she was “heartbroken”.

At Jones Hill Woods, near Aylesbury, protestors resisted the bulldozers, calling HS2 “the greatest deforestation since World War 1”. Scenes of their eviction were chilling. HS2’s sinister enforcement officers, the National Eviction Team, dressed in what looked like riot gear, filmed protestors and used drones, before finally arresting them. A sliver of hope emerged when it became clear HS2 had not done a full ecological survey of resident bat species. But Johnson is unlikely to let “newt counters”, as he called ecologists in one of his less green, probably more truthful moments, get in the way.

Estelle Bailey isn’t the only one to be heartbroken. I am too. I spend a lot of time in Kent and it’s devastating to see how little of Kent’s quintessential countryside is left. Housing developments are everywhere, mostly providing four-five bedroom houses rather than affordable housing which was the Trojan horse that let the developers push their “build, build, build” agenda. Earlier this year Alok Sharma, the business secretary, gave permission to  build Europe’s largest solar plant on Graveney marshes, an evocative, ecologically rich area, and one of the very few places in Kent where you can still experience solitude. And what little was left of the garden of England has now been sacrificed to the insanities of Brexit. It is not just the truly vast lorry park near Sevington but also several hundred portaloos to provide for lorry drivers caught in the bureaucratic hell of a Kent border.

Over the years the pro-development lobby has argued that the British countryside is still abundant so we can afford to lose some of it. This is misleading. The green belt originally made up 13 per cent of all land and for decades was a key factor in the protection of continuous stretches of countryside. As recently as 2010-11, there had been no net loss of it. But changes in planning legislation have led to rapidly escalating incursions into previously undeveloped land, resulting in less continuous countryside and more urban landscapes. The land grab started in 2012 when David Cameron’s coalition government introduced the National Planning Policy Framework. This legislation insisted councils set targets for housing so, lacking land to meet those targets, local authorities were forced to redefine green belt areas as “available for development”. By 2018, 11,960 acres of green belt had been lost and the amount is growing. “If you look at data on land use change,” says Paul Miner, head of Land Use and Planning at CPRE, “levels of development on green field and previously undeveloped countryside have been going steadily upwards.”

If the 2012 changes in planning laws loosened planning controls, housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s proposals in the “Planning for the Future” white paper look dangerously like tearing them up altogether. Planning decisions will be taken away from local communities with areas zoned for development by central government and housing targets set nationally. Developers will be given power to drive forward proposals unobstructed. The stated aim is “to get the country building”. This year’s statistics will likely reveal huge increases in the change of land use from previously underdeveloped to built environment. But the publication of these figures is now overdue. Cynics—or should that be realists?—suspect the delay is deliberate because these figures will inflame a now powerful backbench rebellion against Jenrick’s plans.

Alongside the belief that “build, build, build” will “save” our economy, the main excuse for all this development is the so-called housing crisis. But a growing body of evidence shows that developments currently flourishing in our countryside do nothing to solve the real problem which is not a shortage of housing per se but a shortage of affordable housing. Developers don’t want to build cheap, small starter homes. They prefer five-bedroom, low density, housing on green field sites, especially those near beautiful areas. Why? Because they are massively more profitable. There’s evidence that developers are targeting sites near Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty because these command the highest values.

Those involved in local campaigns to protect their own precious surroundings may not realise it but they are fighting against a countrywide problem. Developers are pushing at the edges of protected areas. Infrastructure projects are blasting through previously connected stretches of habitat. Industrial energy plants and thousands of houses threaten to destroy atmospheric and important marshes. The countryside is literally being transformed into an urban landscape. These changes have never been debated nationally and almost certainly wouldn’t be popular if they were.

We are at a tipping point. Much has already been lost. The time for just singing the praises of the healing powers of nature is over. We need to reflect on how we can take a stand against its destruction. A good place to start would be calling this government to account for pretending to care about nature while concreting over it.

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