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10 October 2014

Forget the seaside: it’s the rural vote, stupid

Post-Clacton, how can the Tories contain the collapse in their core vote?

By William Cash

I was in Clacton on Thursday as Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage stood outside the McDonalds in Clacton-on-sea high street eating McFlurries and bemoaning the Westminster political elite. Neither was dressed for the seaside. Carswell was dressed like an accountant in a dark City suit; Farage was looking more squire than seaside man wearing green corduroys, polished brown brogues and the sort of tweed jacket that you might expect to see on a day out at Newmarket races.

That Farage was dressed as if attending a county show is not just a minor detail. Whilst Ukip may now be remembered for winning its first parliamentary seat in the sort of tatty and jejune seaside town where fish and chips cost £3.95, it will not be the seaside vote that will decide the 2015 election. It is the 12m rural voters who have traditionally voted Tory or Labour and who now are breaking away from the political mainstream faster than Farage’s black Land Rover speeding up to Rochester and Strood from Clacton to support Mark Reckless.

We didn’t hear much about the countryside vote from any of the political leaders during the conference season. But one reason that Farage may have been dressed in his best county sports jacket and cords is that the rural vote is going to matter. Which is why Cameron last week announced new planning guidelines in an attempt to appease rural voters who are defecting to Ukip because of being “let down” by the Tory-led coalition.

Not unlike the grovelling 11th-hour “devo-max” vow offered by Westminster to Scotland in a bid to save the Union, so now Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has announced (last week) that the Tories are pledging – just eight months from the election and well over two years after the NPPF ripped up 50 years of planning law – to save England from being concreted over through a new green “shield” across the greenbelt.

According to the Telegraph, the new guidance states that councils are no longer required to “sacrifice” greenbelt land in order to meet new five-year housing targets. The endemic spread of “new housing” across Shropshire, where I live, was described by my builder the other day as “like rural Ebola”.

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Will this “I vow to thee my country” pledge work to contain the Tory (and, to a lesser extent, Labour) vote across the countryside and suburbs, where the election will be decided in key marginals such as North Warwickshire, on the fringes of Birmingham, where the Tories squeezed in back in 2010 with a majority of just 49 votes (the Tory MP Dan Byles is not standing again)? Or is it too little, too late, with the countryside vote already lost as a result of Osborne’s develop-and-be-damned NPPF planning wars?

The results for both Clacton and Heywood have starkly confirmed the extent to which Ukip is now a permanent headache for both Labour and the Tories. For the Tories to win, they must “hold” their rural vote. For Labour to keep marginal seats in the North and Midlands, they need to cling onto their working class voters. So far, both main parties are failing to do so.

Perhaps the idea of a new “green shield” to protect the countryside is an unfortunate starting point to win back Tory voters. It makes the Tories look as if they are resorting to the political equivalent of free “garage glasses” to win back the rural vote. In the Seventies, Green Shield stamps were an early form of “loyalty card” with the tacky Green Shield catalogue turning into what became the first Argos catalogue in 1973. Fittingly, in the band Genesis’ album of the same year, Green Shield stamps are celebrated in the song Selling England By the Pound.

The line could be the epitaph chiselled on Cameron’s political tombstone, post the 2015 election, if this green “shield” pledge fails to curtail the collapsing rural vote for the Tories. No free pint glasses for guessing where the disenchanted vote is heading.

The new guidance from Pickles comes on the back of a new poll conducted last week by the Countryside Alliance (founded in 1997 and the largest rural affairs lobby with 100,000 members), to which I have been privy, which found 80 per cent of rural voters are now disenchanted with the Tories.

The same figure was revealed by The Shropshire Star last week after they asked their 30,000 daily readers across the county where I live, asking if they thought the “government had let the countryside down”. This was following an open letter I wrote setting out why I was taking on the role of Ukip heritage spokesperson because of my concerns about Osborne’s bulldozers parked on every village green. The poll found 82 per cent of readers thought the Tory-led coalition had failed the countryside.

Shropshire relies on tourism (especially equine and foodie tourism) for nearly 10 per cent of its local economy. To counter this planning plague, the local headlines are full of an ever-increasing number of “Save our Shropshire” protest campaigns: against solar parks, wind farms, pylons and new housing, including an unpopular scheme to sell off some of the famous playing fields of Shrewsbury school.

When the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) recently held a public debate in a Shrewsbury hotel – opposite the council offices – on the subject of “Our Shropshire countryside Under Threat!”, it was packed with over 600 deeply annoyed locals (most not even CPRE members) , furious at the way housing and renewable developers were intent on changing the aesthetic character of rural life in the county that PG Wodehouse (who was born in the county) described as the “Paradise of England”.

These local protestors were largely traditional Tory voters who are being forced to dig deep into their own pockets to fight a series of battles to prevent exactly the sort of “identikit home” new housing estates that Simon Thurley, CEO of English Heritage, warned could multiply by three times in order to meet new housing targets set by the council.

This is certainly true in Shropshire, and much of the West Midlands where such historic market towns, such as Shewsbury, Ludlow, Shifnal and Bridgnorth are faced with impossible to reach housing targets that allow developers to build via a “loop hole” in the NPPF that states that if targets aren’t met, then developers can build where they like – including greenbelt land.

This has led to rural voters waking up to the fact that the NPPF was a planning con, along with any claims for “localism”. The result is a near-permanent state of rural civil war with local villages and towns angrily divided between farmers/developers vs local communities/villagers. So much for the Big Society. That Cameron’s conference speech was so “countryside-lite” says much about the Tories seeming apathetic towards the consequences of the NPPF planning wars.

To the credit of Pickles, who is clearly now getting the message, he has personally stepped in to overturn increasing of wind farm and solar development because of concerns over landscape and heritage. In June, Pickles judged that a solar farm the size of 75 football pitches in Suffolk should be refused permission because it was unsightly and was a waste of arable land. By giving more weight than his own inspectors to “landscape and heritage assets”, he has rejected six wind farms against recommendations to approve. The pro-renewable lobby is now whining about “unprecedented” government interference in schemes. That will have saved a few Tory rural votes.

But is this enough to win back the Tory vote? Whilst the wind farm plague is arguably under some level of “containment” thanks to the efforts of MPs like Chris Heaton-Harris, the real problem for the Tories is that so much political damage has already been done.

Pickles’ pre-election pledge may not appease those who have seen their property prices slashed by 50 per cent and their rural idyll destroyed. The NPPF has been causing rural devastation for nearly three years. Planning decisions like HS2 are like unsightly scars on the body. No amount of surgery repair the aesthetic physical damage to the landscape.

There is no “un-slicing” up of a historic estate as an HS2 train roars through the Capability Brown landscapes of such historic estates as Grade 1 Edgcote near Banbury, or the Packington Hall estate in Warwickshire. But it is not just the toffs who are angry. Whole swathes of Tory rural commuter belts across the HS2 route – especially in the Tory heartland of the Chilterns – are incensed that (apart from the rural desecration) they wont even get any benefits as the route from Birmingham to London doesn’t have any stops.

The published NPPF has largely failed to deliver the promised safeguards to what the NPPF planning minister Greg Clark called the “matchless beauty” of the English countryside. Take the opening scene of the new season of Downton Abbey. The first episode opened inside Grade 1 Great Coxwell Barn in Oxfordshire, not far from the English countryside around Newbury to where Cameron was brought up.

Within a few weeks of the NPPF guidelines being issued in 2011, a planning inspector interpreted the draft guidelines to allow an executive housing development within 500 metres or so of the famous barn, one of England’s most important 14th-century buildings which William Morris described as “unapproachable in dignity”.

Over the last three years, I have travelled around the country to publlic hearings on planning battles that include attempts by rural voters to save such countryside and heritage sites as Sir Thomas Malory’s old 15th-century manor house in the village of Winwick in Northants (German-owned wind farms given approval); an application for 2500 “identikit” homes in TS Eliot’s resting place of the village of East Coker, as immortalised in the Four Quartets; at Watford Lodge, two turbines will spoil the historic setting of Ashby St Ledgers manor house, where the Gunpowder Plot was schemed. Not far away, wind farms will ruin the setting of the Battle of Naseby site. All this history and heritage has been swept aside by the coalition in the interests of “growth”.

The Tories’ rural problem comes down to broken trust. Back in 2001, I wrote a piece entitled “Cameron vs the Shires” which warned of how the NPPF would lead to countryside planning wars – including HS2, wind farm, housing, and solar battles – that could cost the Tories the 2015 election because of rural defections. One of the first casualties of the NPPF was the the setting of the 15th century former home of Sir Thomas Malory in the picture-esque village of Winwick in Northants.

With 100 per cent of the village voting against the turbines, the case became a poster case of why “localism” wasn’t working when a planning inspector over-turned on Appeal the Tory-led Daventry council’s rejection of the proposals to blight the historic hamlet by a EON, the German-owned energy company. Three years on, despite permission being granted, the wind farm is yet to be built. This has caused a lingering bitterness as local properties have been unsaleable with so much uncertainty bringing great community unease.

“This has always been a flaw in english planning law,” says John Temple, the retired lawyer who lives in Malory’s old house. “Under French law not only do you need to start within a given period but then you have to diligently progress the scheme, otherwise it lapses.

“Here we have a situation where the cloud remains over the village for years thereby adversely affecting property transactions in the vicinity. My  involvement has shown me that the NPPF planning system is highly undemocratic and unrepresentative, in that planning appeals are determined by a single planning inspector. Autocracy has replaced democracy, planning legislation is a joke and localism is a fiction.”

Temple points out that elsewhere in the legal system the Court of Appeal sits with three judges and the Supreme Court with five. Yet with the planning wars an appeal process on matters affecting hundreds or thousands of people is in the hands of one person whose decision is in effect subjective ‘balancing act’ of harm versus benefits. In many cases, such as the little village of Winwick, there was “virtually an automatic assumption that the benefit outweighs the harm,” added Temple.

Arguments as to “limited benefit” of planning proposals have been been ignored due to the neeed to meet either EU imposed renewable energy targets, or Osborne’s housing targets. As a result, rural voters increasingly believe that the Coalition have broken the “covenant” of trust that has historically existed between the Tories and rural voters in the countryside. As any farmer or landowner will tell you, countryside “covenants” have long been part of the fabric of rural life, dating back to the Victorian age.

In the Downton Abbey era, “land covenants” were commonly included in any sale of estate land – say to pay for death duties – so as to protect the former estate from former tenant farmers developing former estate land in an anti-social way so as to cause local disharmony (such as creating tar pits or tripe boiling farms). Today we have wind farms, chicken farms, solar parks, industrial pig farms and anaerobic digesters but the planning issues facing locals are the same as 100 years ago.

That this countryside covenant has been broken by the Tories – with Osborne sitting on top of the developer’s tank brigade of bulldozers – is being most keenly felt by the home-improvement classes. Thanks to Osborme’s 2012 budget – now pay 20 per cent VAT on all repairs for listed buildings (including miners cottages, mills and churches) when his developers pay zero VAT on new housing.

But these are the very people who Cameron needs to vote for him to return the Tories to power. Those mowing enthusiasts who are down at the local garden centre at 8am on a Saturday to buy more grass fertiliser, who want to improve their homes and gardens using local craftsmen, stone masons and artisans to create their own mini-Arcadias behind the garden fence or yew hedge wall. They regard the English countryside not as a means to a commercial end (aka farmers and developers) but a place to savour the delights of why England’s still relatively unspoilt greenbelt is the envy of the world.

When the first draft of the NPPF was published, the National Trust and the CPRE predicted what would be a death warrant for rural England. After three years of local planning wars, many rural voters no longer regard the party of Nick Boles (the former planning minister who wanted to develop National Parks) as the ‘party that now stands up for, and protects, the rural countryside and our built heritage.

Whenever I travel around the country today, I am reminded of the despair of JB Priestley’s English Journey published in 1933. This was his personal account of his journey into the English countryside (littered with factories, ugly modern housing and ad hoardings) after deciding to walk out of  London up the Great Western Road into what he hoped was still the great beauty of English countryside. He was sorely disillusioned. The Tories – partly thanks to allowing the NPPF to be drafted by the very developers who bankrolled Cameron’s empty victory campaign of  2010 – have only themselves to blame.

The new Green Shield looks like clearly a knee-jerk response to the outcry in the countryside as to how our historic market towns and villages have been under siege by Osborne’s bulldozers and concrete mixing lorries ever since the NPPF. The new guidance states that greenbelt land does not have to be sacrificed by councils to meet their five-year housing targets. But we have heard all these promises before – not least when the final draft of the NPPF was published two and a half years ago.

But what about the assurances you gave the public back then that the “matchless beauty” of the greenbelt was sacred would be protected ?

Why the need to hastily put out new planning guidelines a few months before the election?

Pickles, Cameron and Osborne know exactly why. Because councils have been given top-down instructions from the Treasury and locals told to simply ignore such statutory protections as greenbelt, conservation areas, Grade 1 heritage assets, grade 1 registered parks and gardens, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB),  Scheduled Ancient Monuments, Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and so on. And this is exactly what has happened across the country. So no wonder rural voters have no faith in the Tories any more to protect them from the post NPPF planning wars.

When Cameron sacked Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary and the minister responsible for the countryside, Paterson retorted to Cameron that, “this will be a kick in the teeth to 12m countryside voters . . . you are making a big mistake”. I fear Paterson may be proved right.

William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spear’s magazine and Ukip’s heritage spokesperson and is standing as a Ukip candidate

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