Forget mindless rioting in UK cities. Rebellion in the countryside could yet be a more insidious problem for David Cameron. He may be the first prime minister from the shires since Anthony Eden, but many of his policies are going down worse there than those of “townie” Tony Blair used to.
The battle over the state forestry sell-off, which forced a U-turn, was just the start. A dispute over high-speed rail through the Chilterns rumbles on. Protests are growing over giant pylons that are planned to sweep across beautiful areas to link wind turbines to new power stations. And now come planning changes to introduce a presumption in favour of sustainable development.
You cannot fault the bravery of Mr Cameron and his planning minister, Greg Clark: taking on the National Trust and a swath of Tory-voting rural dwellers takes nerve. The English, in particular, have an idealised affection for their green and pleasant land that predates the industrial revolution: think of Shakespeare’s “This other Eden, demi-paradise”. The notion of a rural idyll is held dear even though 80 per cent of people live in towns.
The issues are not purely English: there have been protests over 150ft pylons planned in mid-Wales and the Scottish Highlands, as well as for Dedham Vale – immortalised by Constable – the Kent Downs and the Forest of Bowland. Liam Fox, defence secretary, facing pylons in his North Somerset constituency, wrote to Chris Huhne, energy secretary, to argue that burying power lines underground or underwater could be cheaper in the long term.
Pressures on MPs will surely grow. Nicholas Ridley, the 1980s environment secretary, wanted to build new towns in southern England to meet housing shortages. It was he who imported the term Nimby, or not in my back yard, from the US – and then was revealed as a Nimby for objecting to new homes near his Cotswold rectory.
Is there a way through these polarised debates? An independent study of the long-term cost of burying power lines would help. As for houses, your city-dwelling Notebook writer has a degree of sympathy with the conservation cause: it is surely right to insist on high densities, full use of brownfield sites and extensions to towns where transport already exists. But not enough homes were being built even before the downturn. To fight homelessness and poverty, there has to be some relaxation.
Eye of the beholder
In all this, the question of what is beauty raises its head. Pylons have divided opinion for 80 years. There is a Pylon Appreciation Society, created by a photographer. The poet Stephen Spender wrote admiringly of:
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude, giant girls that have no secret.
The British pylon, based on a design by the US Milliken Brothers submitted in 1928, under the guidance of classical architect Sir Reginald Blomfield, has a certain severe splendour. Many people consider them ugly, but why then is Blackpool Tower, for example, thought beautiful? The 117-year-old landmark has just been reopened after a 10-month refurbishment, to widespread acclaim. It was originally inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was derided as an eyesore when it was built but is now regarded as a wonder of the world.
Salford’s MediaCityUK, the BBC’s new northern home, has been named winner of Building Design magazine’s Carbuncle Cup, the prize for the ugliest new building in Britain, by a panel of architecture critics. A close second was the Museum of Liverpool, which critics say should never have been built so close to the Three Graces, including the Royal Liver Building. But when the Liver building opened 100 years ago, some people complained that it was ugly, blocked the river view and was not in keeping with older buildings around it. In matters aesthetic, the beholder’s eye can be disconcertingly fickle.
Lucky, 63 years ago
Men bore the brunt of unemployment in the recession, but now it is rising faster among women. Novelist Linda Grant suggested at the Edinburgh book festival recently that 1948 was the luckiest year to be born a woman in British history: they got not just the NHS and sexual liberation, but a final salary pension too. Is that really true? Opportunities have surely grown since then, albeit inadequately.