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The new wars of the shires

The battle over the government’s planning reforms, which ended with a victory for campaigners led by the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, was a very English revolution. The idea that our sky and natural landscape are community assets that nobody – including the state – owns is firmly rooted in the national imagination. Messing with the landscape can be a dangerous political business.

The new reforms, published by the planning minister Greg Clark in March, are the most profound shake-up of the system since the introduction of the green belt in 1947. The idea is to kick-start the economy with a simplified planning system that favours “development”, with constraints added to prevent the countryside being concreted over.

The initial reaction from campaigners was that Clark had recognised the intrinsic value of our “matchless” countryside.

But the real test will be whether the reforms are clear enough in practice. The problem with planning law is that what is deemed “significant harm”
is open to interpretation by inspectors. Clark appears to have won some serious last-minute concessions from the Treasury – ones that George Osborne would never have allowed had his authority not been weakened by his handling of the Budget and a sense that the Tory-led coalition had “lost touch” with core voters.

After writing in the NS last September about my concerns with the draft planning reforms, especially with regards to heritage and the landscape, I met Clark at the Commons. Clark, whose father was a milkman, comes from a very different social background to Osborne and is far more in touch with what Tory voters are thinking, such as those in his constituency of Tunbridge Wells.

When the ill-thought-out draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was released last July, the grass roots felt strongly betrayed by the Conservative elite. Clark should be credited for standing up to Osborne. But on the controversial subject of wind farms, the NPPF remains silent. Placing the divisive subject of wind farms outside the planning system is not politically sensible.

On 19 April, a new rural lobby organisation, National Opposition to Wind Farms, with thousands of members, was launched at the House of Lords, while over 100 MPs wrote to David Cameron in January warning him not to keep Chris Huhne’s target of installing 32,000 turbines on-and off-shore by 2020.

Stormy weather

Campaigners have won the first phase of the battle but it is still unclear to what extent wind farms will be allowed to despoil the countryside and historic locations. What is needed, as English Heritage has long argued, is the reintroduction of the Heritage Protection Bill, combined with a new listings system that gives tightened statutory protection to assets including the 1,500 or so heritage buildings that are open to the public and help contribute over £12.1bn to the economy.

Such a bill is the only way to protect the heritage that makes this country so unique. Decisions such as allowing a wind farm to be built beside the Naseby battle site, or next to the manor house in Ashby St Ledgers where the gunpowder plot was schemed, have done little to reassure critics.

Wasn’t localism meant to return a voice to local communities? The published reforms are a marked improvement on the original draft but until the poison in the planning system – wind turbines – is finally drained, the planning wars of the shires are likely to have an expensive and bloody sequel.

William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spear’s magazine

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.