If you want to see Britain’s green and pleasant land,’ says Julie Caldwell at the Tourist Centre, ‘you’d better be quick, its going under the bulldozer.’
She spreads out a tourist map of the countryside; pretty, little villages are highlighted and scattered across it. She surveys the map rather as a general would, ‘well that village has gone’, she taps a small village near Aylesbury, ‘and that.’ The list goes on. ‘Its a disaster,’ she tells me. ‘The government has put so much pressure on local councils, that they are pretty much allowing any development to go ahead. This is one thousand identikit houses on green field sites we are talking about, not affordable housing. Nobody is talking about affordable housing anymore, that’s just a joke. Very few of these houses are affordable to the people who need them. They are just slightly less unaffordable and they are not being built in areas where they are needed. Developers are being given a free rein. They won’t build on brown field sites near a city, if a green field in a touristic area is offered to them. Why would they? They know they can sell in areas of outstanding natural beauty.’
This is echoed later by Jonathan Cavanna of local Devon developers, Cavanna Homes. ‘We are a business. Of course we build where we think we can sell houses.’ Cavanna has housing developments at various stages all over the South West. Over six thousand houses have been given the green light in the South Hams alone and more are in the pipeline. The council are finding it very difficult to say no. In the words of Malcolm Elliot at South Hams District Council, ‘the hares are out of the gate.’ A development of one hundred houses along the riverbank has been forced through in Bridgetown, Totnes against the wishes of local residents and the council who turned down the original application. The developers appealed and won and the council was fined for obstruction. It has become harder for them therefore, to object to other, more outrageous developments.
Councils are being given a ball park number of houses to be built called the Housing Need Survey. How these numbers are achieved is surrounded in mystery though councils and developers use them to justify massive new developments. Peter Coates of the Devon CPRE explains, ‘These are housing figures decided on by central government, which are supposed to cover both a lack of building in the past and accommodate projected population growth. But they bear little relation to real need. There is obviously a shortage of houses locally, or when I say houses, I mean houses that people can actually afford to buy. We need council houses, not four bed executive houses in estates by the sea. But the government has stopped paying for them. To reward the developers for building ten ‘less unaffordable’ houses, they are allowed to build another hundred for the mass market.’
Councils get paid by the government for every house built and are often penalised if they prevent development. Its the carrot and stick approach for cash-strapped councils to pass planning applications. ‘Its just about money,’ says Peter Coates. The countryside is being swallowed up by giant developments; landowners and builders are having a field day, literally and this is all being forced through by a government, which once promised to ‘protect the countryside.’
Tourists enjoying a day out in Dartington Hall Estate, Devon are confronted by a team of protesters dragging a coffin behind them. ‘Don’t Bury Dartington Under Concrete’ are mounting a vigorous campaign against Dartington Hall Trust and their decision to offer sixty acres to the Our Plan process. ‘This could mean up to five hundred houses being built here,’ says Trudy Turrell of the campaign. ‘The Trust is a charity, famous internationally for its commitment to sustainable land management, if estate bombing can happen here, it can happen anywhere.’ Vaughan Lindsay, CEO of the Estate explains, ‘we offer the same amount of fields to the council every year – this year they accepted them all. We were amazed.’ When asked why Dartington did not withdraw the sites from the planning process, he explains that the council had told him that once the estate had withdrawn the land, it could not be put forward at a later stage. ‘We have never disguised our interest in the capital value of the sites,’ Vaughan Lindsay explains.
Unscrupulous landowners are enjoying an enormous windfall at the expense of the countryside and local people. ‘This is farmland they are building on,’ Robert Stannard, a local Somerset farmer tells me. ‘Once this land has gone, we can’t get it back. Its taken hundreds of years for the land round here to work as it does. You build a couple of thousand houses and you lose the grazing and the crops forever. Where do people think their food comes from? It’s peoples livelihoods you are talking about, all this talk of housing – these aren’t houses for us, these are second homes. These are holiday homes and investments for people who don’t have to live and work here. People won’t come on holiday here anymore that’s a fact.’ He surveys the vast housing estate that sweeps out from Honiton, several thousand houses. Its a depressing sight. ‘A lot of these houses are empty,’ he tells me, ‘there’s talk of people being moved from Manchester to the empty houses. What are they going to do here?’ He is incredulous, ‘The only people who have done alright out of all this are the landowners who sold their land in the first place. They’ve all buggered off to Spain with money in their pockets.’
From Cranbrook in Kent to East Calder in West Lothian, from Earswick in York to a ‘new village’ in Cardiff – from Dorking to Brize-Norton – on green-belt land, farming land, areas backing on to national parks – no countryside seems safe from the bulldozer and local and resident groups are being totally ignored in this unprecedented land grab.
‘This is stealth warfare,’ says Julie Caldwell, ‘nobody expected this to happen on the scale it has. They’ve used the housing crisis as an excuse to relax the laws. The developers are making a packet and carving up the most beautiful parts of our country. They are silencing opposition with cries of nimbyism, whilst destroying peoples lives. I have no words to describe them – we have opened our land up to the sharks and centuries of countryside law and protection have been swept away. How can I sell Britain to the Americans, to the tourists when everything that I talk about has been concreted over, it makes me feel like crying.’
For the Geographical