The battle for the future of the British countryside is being waged along simple lines; either it will remain a green and pleasant land, unfettered by development, or it will be bulldozed to make way for one enormous Wimpey home.
A decade ago, this would not have been an issue. Development was in and housing projects would have been pushed through before the rural preservation lobby had time to call a protest tea party. Today, though, Britain is building homes at the slowest rate since 1923 and the countryside is in vogue.
Television is spearheading the rural revolution. Urban-centric dramas have been usurped by programmes about hill walking, coastal walking, and, more recently, glamping. Even tough-guy UK TV has gone rural; shaven-headed ‘ard-bastard meets real street gang formula has been traded for ruddy-faced “real” man eats squirrel captured, executed and souffléd with his bare hands.
However, the real cheerleader in the bitter fight to preserve Britain’s pastoral glory is the National Trust. Long established as the protector of the country’s “special” tracts of rural land and buildings of historic importance, the Trust is determined to kibosh the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which it sees as a charter for concreting. The way the Trust sees it, people do not want houses on so-called greenfield sites – developer parlance for countryside.
The problem is that this is not what the Trust should be doing. As a champion for heritage, it should be concerned with preserving the historic buildings and unspoilt land that it owns, not parading as a hyper-Nimby, obsessed with stamping out development beyond the confines of the cities. Paranoid statements about it being “up against some very powerful and rich people” in its fight add to a slightly unsettling feeling that it is acting outside its remit.
I should declare interest here. At birth I had the gift of a lifetime membership to the Trust bestowed upon me. But that is not the reason for my disgruntlement. My concern is that the Trust is not being upfront in the real reason for its resistance to new-build homes. What it should be saying is: “We oppose increasing the flow of new homes because at no point, in any future that correlates to this present, will we be able to charge people to wander around a Wimpey or Barratt development.”
Imagine the unfortunate tour guide’s hymn sheet a hundred or so years from now. “During the great financial crisis of the 21st century, housebuilders used features like faux-granite worktops and ambient up-lighting to lure cash-strapped buyers. Sir, yes, you sir, please remain behind the red rope and don’t try to touch the double glazing.”
English Heritage, the Trust’s preservation sparring partner, has taken a different approach to solving the housing shortage. It has done a survey. Interestingly, this shows that 80 per cent of people think that industrial wasteland is “as important as castles and country houses”.
It is unclear in what way respondents see disused factories, watermills and mines as being as important as aristocratic piles. It seems unlikely that visitors would flock to guided tours of London’s Battersea power station, for instance. But, if the 80 per cent are in any way representative of the compos mentis masses, the survey’s findings present an immediate hitch to the argument that the vast majority of people only want new homes to be built on so-called brownfield sites – developer parlance for industrial wasteland.
One solution English Heritage comes up with is to convert disused factories and collieries into chic 21st-century apartments or offices. The building can be “structurally sound, while retaining an ‘industrial’ character as part of the appeal”.
The only issue with this is that unless the whole area is redeveloped, one could end up in a beautifully converted custard factory surrounded by buildings which had more fully retained their “industrial character”.
Sadly, though, English Heritage concedes that 60 per cent of England’s industrial heritage has no such future. Instead it will depend on volunteers and philanthropists. The group even admits that “it can be hard to find funding to maintain sites which can only be preserved as ruins”. Really? I find that very difficult to believe.
While both groups make good cases for preserving the status quo of Britain’s fabric, neither argument will solve the housing shortage. The country needs more homes and, just as cities cannot grow indefinitely larger, rural villages cannot remain indefinitely small. The solution, perhaps, is for the Trust and English Heritage to join forces and lobby exclusively for housing developments that will, a century from now, be both historically important and have room for a gift shop.
Ed Hammond is the FT’s property correspondent
More columns at www.ft.com/perspective