Now and again, a British politician will speak up and claim that what Britain really needs is to rip up planning laws and processes and allow development to have its wicked way with the British countryside. For those of you not au fait with political terminology, development in this context means erecting bland housing estates, supermarkets, outlet stores, roads with lots of roundabouts and ‘business parks’ where once there were fields, meadows, hills, marshes and forests.
2012 has been a vintage year for this kind of talk, the reason for this being the deluded idea that such development might kick start Britain’s ailing economy, mostly, I suppose by engineering a new construction boom. Only last month Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the electorally doomed Liberal Democrats suggested that a lot of new towns needed to be built to accommodate Britain’s burgeoning population (I wonder why he didn’t declare this in one of the last generation of new towns like Milton Keynes, Washington or Cumbernauld). Now Britain’s ‘Housing Minister’ (!), has laid out his plans for large areas of the countryside to be put aside for development. This housing minister, Nick Boles, by the way, is a member of the Conservative party, many of whom really ought to look up the words ‘conserve’, ‘conservation’ and indeed ‘conservative’. Being a minister, Boles could have a special advisor do so for him.
Good luck, then, to excellent poet and new spokesman for the Campaign for Rural England, Andrew Motion. He has his work cut out for him against the current crop of development-minded metropolitan toadies. He looks a bit mild-mannered to fill the role of a modern-day William Cobbett, who rode the country by horse fulminating against the development of his day, but early signs have been encouraging.
The English countryside was, until relatively recently, thought to be something immutable and half-sacred. Although ‘The Great Wen’ has long been a concern in the South East, for most of the country, the gaps between towns and villages looked quite big enough to absorb any amount of development without being wiped out. That started to change in the 20th century, as far back as when Betjeman wrote ‘Slough’, but more so after World war Two. By the sixties and seventies, writers like J.G. Ballard could imagine Britain’s future as a great drift of urban and semi-urban settlement. Those who still valued Britain’s countryside started to wonder who was still on their side: had the link between the people and the land been so sundered by tens of decades of urbanization that the countryside would disappear largely unmourned? Here is Philip Larkin, the poet most associated with Britain’s post war decline, with his take on this, back in 1972.
I thought it would last my time –
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down;
I knew there’d be false alarms
In the papers about old streets
And split level shopping, but some
Have always been left so far;
And when the old part retreats
As the bleak high-risers come
We can always escape in the car.
Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
– But what do I feel now? Doubt?
(This blog respects copyright. To read the rest of the poem, try your local library, or else where on the internet – or, if you really like it, buy it.)