Planning reforms: Must England's Beauty Perish, Mr. Cameron?

Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir, is at a certain stage obliged to visit England; he disparages the gross manners and crude conceptions of the people, finds nothing in the cities that would remotely interest a person of refined sensibility, and yet is taken aback by the "indescribable sweetness" of the countryside, which surpasses anything he had known in France. Visitors to England today report the same impression, and are often at a loss to understand how such a delicate fabric could have stayed in place despite industrialisation, a tenfold increase in population since the 18th century, bombardment by the Luftwaffe and the ever-accelerating impact of commerce. The impression is all the more striking, given that England is the most densely populated country in Europe, with 395 people for every square kilometre - more than three times the European average. To compare England as it is today with the Netherlands (which has 392 people for every square kilometre) is to find vivid proof that there is such a thing as successful environmental management.

What explains this? David Cameron has urged us to put civil society in place of the state, and to return to the people the initiative that central government has stolen from them. I applaud his intentions. But the Coalition's proposals to reform the planning system, while ostensibly returning planning decisions to local communities, leave the default position not in the hands of the community, but in the hands of the developer - the big business from elsewhere, which has no interest in conserving a cherished habitat and which is no more the friend of civil society than was the dictatorial state.

The astonishing success of the English in conserving their environment illustrates the principle that the Government is now on the brink of betraying. Almost none of the work of rescuing our country from the effects of the Industrial Revolution was initiated by Parliament, and all of it depended on public-spirited citizens combining in defence of their homes. The Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, founded in 1865 by George Shaw-Lefevre, used old common-law rights to put a spoke in the wheel of Parliament and the developers on behalf of the woodlands around London.

The Guild of St George, founded by Ruskin in 1870, defended the face of England from the blemishes of industrialisation, and without its work the Lake District would not be the jewel that it was until the wind farms came. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded in 1877 by Philip Webb and William Morris, inspired the inhabitants of our cities to preserve their streets as settlements, places with souls.

The many civic initiatives culminated in 1895, with the foundation of the National Trust. The trust was not then and has not been since a government organisation, and to call it an NGO is to misrepresent its moral character. It is a civil association, granting privileges to members, of whom there are now 3.8 million, and devoted to setting an example of stewardship to the nation as a whole.

Its members are not mobilised behind a campaign, but settled around a common interest, and they refresh that interest by visiting the places that the trust maintains. No longer a "little platoon", it is nevertheless a civil institution, an expression of the deep spiritual bond between a people and a place, a bond that the English have always and rightly treated as sacred.

In 1899, Sir Ebenezer Howard formed the Garden City Association, in order to advocate a new kind of conurbation, free from the overcrowding and pollution of the Victorian slum. This institution was eventually to become the Town and Country Planning Association in 1941, joining forces with other civic initiatives to press for planning laws that would constrain development in both town and country. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England was launched in 1925, and now has branches all over the country, doing what it can in the cause of the "beauty, tranquillity and diversity of the countryside".

The efforts of these associations were boosted by the historian GM Trevelyan, whose book Must England's Beauty Perish?, published in 1926, awoke the reading public to the threat of urban sprawl. Trevelyan's warning was amplified in 1928, when the architect Clough Williams-Ellis, founder of the model town of Portmeirion in Wales, published England and the Octopus, describing the danger of ribbon development. Williams-Ellis's initiative was taken up by a host of writers and campaigners, and their work eventually led to the Town and Country Planning Act of 1946, establishing Green Belts, forbidding ribbon development and laying down nationwide constraints on building in rural areas.

There are few success stories in environmental politics. But the 1946 Act is one of them. And its success is due to one fact above all, which is that it removes the default position from the developer. It is a set of constraints, telling us what cannot be done, but leaving what is done to negotiation between the parties. It is not a perfect law, but it has commanded the assent of English people of all temperaments and political persuasions, because it has protected their country as a home.

The Government justifies its new proposals as instruments of economic growth. The 1946 Act has certainly been an obstacle to economic growth. When people refuse to pull down a cathedral for the sake of the coal beneath it, or insist on retaining a Georgian city when it could be rebuilt as a business park, they create obstacles to economic growth. Most forms of love are obstacles to economic growth. Thank God for obstacles to economic growth.

 

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