Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
18 February 2023

Clarkson’s Farm is yet more proof that nimbys run the world

A planning system that says no at the slightest hint of opposition, and to hell with our economic decline, is not fit for purpose.

By Jonn Elledge

There are two long-held assumptions which, this week, I’ve found shaken by the same television series from Amazon Prime. One is that the weakness of English local government is the source of a fair number of our problems as a nation; the other is that I will never root for Jeremy Clarkson in anything. Clarkson, after all, is British car culture embodied: a cyclist-baiting, public transport-hating petrolhead who recently wrote a column about Meghan Markle so dripping in hate that even the Sun was forced to admit it was a bit much. All that, and he does the same obnoxious tweet about his A-levels every bloody year, too.

And so it gives me no joy whatsoever to report that Clarkson’s Farm, which concerns his attempts to build a profitable agribusiness in the Cotswolds, is still one of the most charming shows on television. Clarkson bumbles around, messing everything up and getting sentimental about cows, all the while living in fear of being mocked by a 24-year-old farm hand. Along the way, we get sentimental about the cows, too – oh, Pepper – while learning a surprising amount about how everything (weather, government, soaring energy bills, Brexit) is conspiring to ruin British farming.

None of this should especially matter to Clarkson who is, as one furious local points out, primarily a media personality, not a farmer. But the reason I’ve found myself rooting for him nonetheless is because the second season of the show, released last week, introduces something that every good story needs: a villain. And the form Clarkson’s nemesis takes is not, say, a vegetarian Labour-voting cyclist – it’s the planning department at West Oxfordshire District Council.

Clarkson’s plan, you see, is to open a restaurant. This would create jobs for the locals; it would provide an outlet to sell his farm’s produce, not least the aforementioned cows; it would even, by means of a co-op, do the same for other local farmers, who produce things Clarkson’s farm does not and are facing all the same pressures without the release valve of a massively lucrative TV career. What’s not to love?

Well, in the eyes of the council, quite a lot. The farm shop, whose famous owner has attracted greater custom than such shops can normally expect, is already generating traffic, in a part of the Cotswolds protected as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (despite, it must be said, looking like every other bit of southern English farmland you’ve ever seen). Some of the locals complain that adding a restaurant would generate more traffic, and noise pollution, and light pollution. One seems particularly concerned it will make it harder to see the stars on his evening walks.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

[See also: The myth of England’s rural idyll]

And so the council denies the planning permission required to convert a barn and build a car park. Later it, bafflingly, blocks a plan to build a track across a field, too. An appeal to the secretary of state is possible – but demanding a government minister get involved in decisions over what to do with a barn somewhere in Oxfordshire tends towards the ludicrous, and would in any case cost half a million quid.

So Clarkson doesn’t bother. The farmers who want to sell their produce and the locals who might need jobs lose out; an elderly man with a telescope gets his way. Nothing can change. The countryside is preserved in aspic.

West Oxfordshire District Council has responded to widespread criticism with a statement claiming that its “advice was not followed” by the farm and insisting that “we only ever take such action [enforcing alleged breaches of planning law related to the car parking] as a last resort”. I find it hard to see how the council’s statement justifies its decision.

I said that nothing will change, but that’s not quite true. If farmers go bust, things will change. If the locals can’t get jobs, things will change. The slow-motion collapse of the British farming industry is surely a greater threat to the Cotswolds than a restaurant on a farm. But those who oppose developments seem, as ever, not to care.

Even the slightest familiarity with the British planning system suggests that this sort of thing happens a lot. Some degree of development is often needed, not just to provide homes for a growing population but to provide jobs and economic growth, too. But both council planning committees and the groups who respond to consultations tend to be dominated by retirees, who have homes, and are at a stage in their lives where the state of the local economy is no longer a priority.

So developments don’t happen, and after years of this it’s hurting all of us. There is demand, thanks to life sciences and other industries, for over one million square feet of lab space around Cambridge, one of Britain’s boom towns; only 10,000 is available. Brexit and energy bills are two big reasons for our current economic malaise. Another, surely, is that we can’t bloody build anything.

What I kept thinking, watching Clarkson’s Farm, was: what’s it got to do with you? Why should these people get a say in whether or not a farmer, even one who happens to be a celebrity, can open a restaurant? Sure, such things might generate external issues like traffic, and those need to be managed. But a planning system that says no at the slightest hint of opposition, and to hell with our economic decline, is a planning system that’s just not fit for purpose. If you have everything you need, and see no reason anything should change, congratulations, I’m pleased for you. But I’m sorry: other people’s need for jobs and homes matters more.

[See also: Will anyone dare defy the Nimby Party?]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article : , ,