PETER FROST discovers the Minister for Communities is up to no good. No change there then.
In just a few weeks we will be paying tribute to those brave countryside campaigners , many of them communists, who organised the Kinder Trespass and who went to jail in the cause of opening up the British countryside to ordinary people.
Meanwhile last week David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Con-Dem government has been organising yet another undercover attack on our wonderful national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, just it has been doing since the election.
Funding and jobs have been slashed in national parks up and down the country. Eric Pickles, fresh from trying to blame the floods on hard-working women and men at the Environment Agency, many of whom are working under the shadow of the sack, has turned his attention on our most beautiful open spaces.
Helping him in his nefarious scheme is his Junior Planning Minister Nick Boles. Tory Boles has campaigned for introducing means testing for bus passes, free prescriptions, winter fuel payments and other benefits for the elderly. Now Pickles and Boles have come up with a scheme to give their Tory friends who own farms or large properties in some of Britain’s most beautiful regions a huge cash bonus.
They tried to hide it away in the debate on an obscure part of House of Commons business last week. But they didn’t reckon on the heroic opposition of one of their own. Tory MP for Totnes and Dartmoor National Park Dr Sarah Wollaston (below). Wollaston was the local GP until election in 2010.
She only joined the Conservative Party four years before, ironically as a result of opposing the closure of a local hospital. In 2009, despite admitting she had “no background in politics” she put her name forward for the selection of a candidate for the Totnes seat. Conservatives had already decided that the selection in this seat would, for the first time ever in Britain, be made by an open primary. Every voter was given a vote and Wollaston won hands down.
Last week, much to the annoyance of the Con-Dem Cabinet and Pickles in particular, Wollaston has blown the whistle and made his underhand methods public. Last Monday she demanded an adjournment debate at Westminster. She revealed that deeply hidden in the technicalities was a proposal to grant landowners permitted development rights. This would allow them to tear down and replace or drastically convert up to three existing farm buildings all without the need for any planning permission.
If slipped through into law these moves would unleash a profit driven bonanza of second homes and holiday rentals creating more ghost villages and hamlets inhabited only at weekends or in the holiday seasons. The impact of a such a planning free-for-all would be huge. Historic and attractive old buildings, so much of the charm of our landscapes will be snapped up, to be torn down or changed out of all recognition by greedy property developers. Of course there is a real need for affordable housing in these sensitive areas.
Already local working people and their children are being driven out by escalating rents and property prices. Rest assured these Tory measures aren’t designed to solve this problem. Quite the opposite in fact. These are all about making rich Tory-voting landowners even richer.
The impact will be huge, not only because developers are likely to prefer to convert remaining heritage buildings and barns but because of the chilling effect this prospect is already having on schemes to build realistically priced homes for local people.
An increase in second homes and holiday rentals will do nothing to reduce prices. That market caters for an entirely different demand. These developments are for wealthy city-dwellers seeking an occasional bolt hole in a national park or other beautiful and previously protected areas. Specifically these new proposals are designed to allow for new developments that are twice the size allowed for affordable housing.
Recently, since the reduction in capital grants, the only way to encourage the building of such housing has been through the planning process. Reluctant landowners have been forced to build some affordable housing in return for allowing planning permission for other expensive, open-market properties.
Pickles and Boles’s new proposals will be the last nail in the coffin of for local families wishing to live in large swathes of our countryside. There are other worries apart from housing. As our national parks turn into gentrified suburban playgrounds it will be a death sentence for many rare and fragile ecosystems.
These ecosystems are already under massive threat from disastrous Tory and European agricultural pressures that have forced changing grazing and farming patterns over recent decades. Pony and pet llama paddocks will replace lower lying natural meadows. Open moor, with no grazing animals will revert from heather to gorse, ideal for private grouse shoots of course and — surprise, surprise — we are back at the time of the Kinder Trespass.
Those brave trespassers laid the basis for the National Park Movement. A Labour government made the parks a reality in 1949 with its National Parks and Access to the Countryside Bill. Labour minister Lewis Silkin paid tribute to the Kinder Trespass when he introduced the Bill to Parliament. He described it as a “people’s charter for the open air.” That idea and the spirit in engenders is just as much needed today.
The wonderful countryside of our national parks deserves our protection, not just for the rich toffs lucky enough to own the land itself but much more important for the living, working communities who are the guarantee of the future of these jewels of our landscape.
Peter Frost was the secretary of state’s representative on the Broads National Park from 2004 to 2013.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 3 March 2014