Show Hide image

A very English revolution

Middle England feels betrayed by the coalition’s shake-up of planning rules – the biggest since the

Middle England feels betrayed by the coalition’s shake-up of planning rules – the biggest since the 1930s. Are the Tories ready to go to war with their own core vote?

As you drive into Winwick in western Northamptonshire, the first thatched cottage you see has a Union Jack flying above a black door. In the tiny village, there are no pubs or shops - just a skyline dominated by the bell tower of St Michael and All Angels Church and a 15th-century brick manor, once owned by Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d'Arthur. The population, about 70 people, consists mostly of loyal Tory voters. Orrather, they were.

The village seems to be the incarnation of the pastoral ideal of England that David Cameron has always championed. "The beauty of our landscape, the particular cultures and traditions that rural life sustains - these are national treasures to be cherished and protected for everyone's benefit," he told the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) in May 2008. "It's not enough for politicians just to say that. We need leaders who really understand it and feel it in their bones. I do."

Winwick's residents aren't so sure. The present owner of Winwick Manor is John Temple, a Charterhouse-educated former lawyer who collects art and maintains an Elizabethan knot garden. On 4 September, as he collected entry fees to the annual village fete - attended by Chris Heaton-Harris, the local Tory MP, who has a majority of nearly 20,000 - Temple looked every inch the loyal Conservative voter.

There was a clue to his displeasure with the Tories, however: seven giant red helium balloons, floating in the sky like blots of blood 60 metres above the knot garden. They were designed to give guests an idea of the scale of the seven wind turbines that the German energy company E.On wants to build on the ridge behind the manor.

The proposed turbines are 126.5 metres tall – the equivalent of 25 double-decker buses stacked on top of each other. "They'll be twice the height of my balloons," Temple said. "[The project] will desecrate the local countryside. If it goes through, I and most of the village will never vote Tory again."

Temple was not alone. Everyone seemed to feel the same way. The resident whose property will be closest to the turbines is Bruce Green, a wealthy entrepreneur who makes beauty products at his laboratory at Winwick Hall. "If we don't win this appeal, we'll take our case to the Lords or the European Court of Human Rights," he told me. "Unless the government does something to stop this planning madness, I will never vote for, or donate to, the Tories again. I feel a huge sense of being let down."

For Temple, Winwick's response to E.On's proposal is a perfect case study of how local democracy, as championed by Greg Clark, the coalition's communities and planning minister, should be conducted. Nobody wants the application to go through, other than the German energy firm. So, the whole village, with the exception of the one farmer on whose land the turbines were to be built, voted at the council meeting at which the turbines were discussed; 100 per cent voted against. Yet the uncertainty remains.

Later, as we sit in his drawing room, Temple tells me that all of the planning reforms are riling him, not just those related to the turbines. Attempting to demystify the current law, the coalition has come up with a document called the Draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It states that, in planning applications, "decision-takers . . . should assume that the default answer to development proposals is 'yes'". (The Telegraph reported on 7 September that, although it is still a "draft", planning advisers are already being told to abide by it.) Campaign groups including the National Trust are concerned that this change in language could lead to the most substantial overhaul of the system since the 1930s. "The idea of amending planning legislation to make it a de facto 'yes' to all planning on the grounds of economic growth is just madness," Temple said. "We do not want our landscape [to be] wrecked. The old system of planning in the UK may have been tight but it's far better to have planned development than a cowboy-style free-for-all, which is what the government seems set on achieving."

The concern now is not only the proliferation of wind turbines and the spread of high-speed rail lines, but also the possibility of a dramatic increase in housebuilding projects, such as South Somerset District Council's plan to build 3,700 homes near Yeovil. The development threatens the village of East Coker, which figures in T S Eliot's Four Quartets.

Countryside campaigners are worried, too, about the Localism Bill, which is at the report stage in the House of Lords, meaning that amendments can be made. The coalition claims that this will shift power from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils. The idea is that the government has become too big and bureaucratic and that "community empowerment" through "neighbourhood plans" is the answer.

The reality is rather different. Much of the so-called localism is a myth. The bill includes a "top-down" override that makes it impossible for local communities to choose - or, more importantly, block - developments that contradict the "core" principles of the bill and the NPPF, including EU laws and all national "policy", such as that default "yes" to development.

How did it come to this? The UK's green fields and picturesque villages have long been considered sacrosanct by the property classes of Middle England, so why have the Tories embarked on a collision course with their core voters? Just as Cameron was able to steal centre-left support from Labour by zealously backing public services, schools and the NHS, so Labour (the party that banned fox hunting) has been quick to seize political capital by repositioning itself as "countryside-friendly". The shadow secretary, Mary Creagh, won the first victory when she described the coalition's plans to privatise England's forests as "environmental vandalism". A swift retreat followed.

This is exactly the sentiment that many Tory MPs (echoing the warnings of conservation and heritage groups) are using to describe thegovernment's planning reforms. I live in Upton Cressett in Shropshire, a hamlet not unlike Winwick, where an unsightly windfarm has been proposed, and so I have been interested in the issue for some months now.

A senior Tory MP tells me that a "shire rebellion" is being planned and that Heaton-Harris is part of a group of more than 80 crossbench parliamentarians brought together by Adrian Snook, a planning reform activist and leading campaigner, against "inappropriately sited" rural windfarms.

The concerned MPs plan to meet on 12 September in the Grand Committee Room in the Houses of Parliament. "It's a very British revolution," Snook told me at the fete, where he was collecting signatures for an online petition. "The English countryside has not seen anything like it since the enclosure system defiled rural life."

One great source of anxiety for those opposing the planning reforms is that the presumption in favour of developers will lead to the loss of what the last Labour government called our "heritage assets". English Heritage has raised its concerns and the National Trust is so worried that it plans to mobilise its 3.5 million-plus members to petition for the legislation to be rewritten entirely.

Nick Way, director general of the Historic Houses Association (HHA), says that he is "very concerned" about the bill. "We are supporting moves to get a better balance before the bill completes its parliamentary stages. If that does not happen, historic house owners and others living and working in the countryside face huge uncertainty."

Despite these warnings, one of the HHA's problems is that its members - as with those of the Country Land and Business Association - are divided over the issue. Many owners of stately homes and grand estates are doing very nicely out of the mania for wind turbines.

Cameron's father-in-law, Reginald Sheffield, has admitted that he makes what he calls a "modest income" of almost £350,000 a year from the turbines on his land in Lincolnshire. The Duke of Gloucester, who lives in Kensington Palace in London, has a scheme under way to build a windfarm 85 miles away on his ancestral estate in Northamptonshire. Each turbine could earn him up to £20,000 a year. And the Duke of Roxburghe has infuriated local people in the Borders after winning a lengthy planning battle to build 48 turbines, each about 400ft high, on unspoilt moorland in the Scottish borders. It is estimated that the duke, whose wealth is valued at over £100m, could earn between £750,000 and £1m a year from the scheme. (The Prince of Wales, always concerned with aesthetics, refuses to have anything to do with windfarms, despite owning plenty of suitable land in Cornwall.)

Freeing land for green development - with a presumption of "yes" - is very good news for some wealthy landowners. Land prices have already risen disproportionately in recent years, faster than those for property: Savills cites the average price as roughly £5,200 an acre. As the New Statesman's editor, Jason Cowley, noted in a piece for this magazine in October 2010, 69 per cent of the acreage of Britain is owned by 0.6 of the population.

Tory MPs cannot quite believe that their party has lost its "feel" for rural England. As Heaton-Harris said to me at the Winwick fete, "Partly as a result of the expenses scandal, many MPs can no longer afford to have second homes in their constituencies. They live in London. It's going back to the days when a 'constituency' visit was a local event."

The only person who claims to understand the concerns of the countryside is Cameron - hence that speech to the CPRE in 2008. He must be aware that the combined membership of the CPRE and the National Trust dwarfs that of any political party. As the Financial Times put it, National Trust members are "nothing less than the cultural wing of Tory-and-Liberal-Democrat-voting Middle England".

Shaun Spiers, director of the CPRE, criticises the reforms with particular relish. "I have no wish to enter into a slanging match with ministers, fun though that might be," he says. "What is being proposed will be bad for the countryside, towns and cities and will not win public consent. If the government does not think again, it can look forward to battles against development up and down the country."

Spiers says that feelings are so charged among members in the rural shires that branches have instructed the CPRE executive to "stop worrying about maintaining good relations with the government" and, in the words of one former branch chair from Middle England, to start "screaming from the top of Big Ben" that the state is "proposing to dismantle the countryside protection that the CPRE helped create in 1947".

The key to understanding this anger is that, although Greg Clark likes to rhapsodise about localism and putting an end to "top-down" centralism in planning, the fine print of the 52-page NPPF draft and the 446-page Localism Bill tells a different story. Both are thinly disguised charters for planning centralism and, in practice, have little to do with the sort of local democracy and community self-empowerment that Clark and Cameron have promised as part of the "big society".

What, then, of our housing crisis? The old Tory dream of a property-owning democracy is in reverse, as demand rises but supply falls. The number of new homes completed in England has fallen to its lowest level since 1923. Just 102,570 properties were built in 2010, 13 per cent less than in the previous year, and the lowest level during peacetime in nearly 90 years. The cost of the average house now stands at £214,647 and is expected to rise by 21.3 per cent over the next five years to £260,304.

Despite these grim statistics, the truth is that we have 160,000 acres available for development - enough to build more than three million affordable homes, if developers wanted to and potential homeowners could get mortgages from the banks for them.

Rural towns and villages tend to get very unruly, very quickly, when they have developments or industrial-planning proposals foisted upon them that they do not want or have not asked for, and have already politely rejected - often at huge expense (the average cost of a planning appeal campaign is about £50,000).

In August, I attended a public inquiry in Huntingdon to decide whether seven menacing, 126-metre-high turbines were a suitable backdrop to the four Grade I façades of Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire, the former palace of Catherine of Aragon, designed by John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Unlike Winwick, Kimbolton is a thriving town with hundreds of residents who have dipped into their own pockets to fight the developers Broadview Energy on appeal (the local authorities earlier turned down the application). The developers - egged on by coalition policy - have ignored local sentiment, even though Simon Thurley of English Heritage was a pupil at Kimbolton School and has put the full force of the organisation against the development.

The statistic that worries the town's residents is that, while roughly 75 per cent of planning applications for windfarms are rejected locally at a council level, about 80 per cent of appeals are overturned when government-appointed inspectors are drafted in to make a decision. So much for Clark's claim of local democracy.

Funnily enough, Clark, the MP for Tunbridge Wells, also seems to be yo-yoing on the subject of his enthusiasm for the beauty of the countryside. When the "South-East Plan" was announced in 2009, with its suggestion that 6,000 "affordable" new homes should be built in his leafy Kent constituency, Clark protested: "One of the delights of our area is that there is scarcely a neighbourhood that is not within a short walk of the green fields that surround us."

In Kimbolton, as in Winwick - and as in my home of Upton Cressett - the hope is that sanity will prevail and the wishes of local residents be put above those of the developers.

It is a truly English battle. One of the arguments of the anti-windfarm campaigners at Kimbolton is that the development would overshadow the 19th-century cricket ground, with the huge blades causing "shadow flicker" that would make it difficult to see the ball when facing fast bowling. Many in the town think that the government inspector needs to bowl the government a sharp bouncer, too.

Like the land wars of the 18th century and the Enclosure Acts, the planning debate comes down to a few questions: what is the countryside for? Who owns a skyline or a historic landscape? What is more important - a sprawl of new housing or a "historic environment"?

What is needed is not the obfuscation of the draft planning laws and the Localism Bill, but clarity - particularly over what will be protected as a "heritage asset". Windfarms, some of the most contentious building projects around, are not even mentioned once by name in the bill. It would go some way to appease concerned MPs if there were prohibitions on turbines within, say, a mile of Grade I and II* listed buildings.

Many of Cameron's core voters in the shires would agree with George Orwell, who said of the original land-grab, the Enclosure Acts: "They were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so."

Today's developers must not be allowed to do the same. If they do, the consequences for the countryside - and the Conservative Party - could be cataclysmic.

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

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires