Shaun Spiers’ Response
David Miliband’s speech to CPRE, ‘A Land Fit for the Future’, is a rare example of a politician thinking aloud, and in a serious way, about an important and complex subject – in this case, how we as a nation should use our land. David recalls CPRE’s role in ‘shaping our planning system and establishing a consensus across parties about how we should use our land’. He says that climate change requires a ‘radical rethink’ about land use. And he challenges CPRE to take a more ‘proactive and positive’ approach to land, the implication being that we are sometimes over-defensive – an organisation too committed to protecting rural England to pay much attention to how it can be enhanced. Are we up to the challenge? As a country, are we able to forge a new consensus in support of the principle of a democratic, land-use planning system, a principle that is now under threat from left and right? And is CPRE willing to raise its sights above day-to-day battles in defence of this or that bit of threatened countryside, and articulate a vision for how land in town and country should be used in the 21st century?
Well, CPRE will certainly try to set out such a vision for land use, and to build a consensus around it. Over the next year, we will be engaging in a debate about the purpose and value of the countryside – who is it for, how much do we need, how much should be farmed or ‘re-wilded’ or developed, and a host of other big questions. As an organisation, we don’t just want to resist unnecessary and damaging developments. We want to help develop a framework for decision-makers which makes it less likely that damaging proposals for development will have any likelihood of success. But, but, but. Positive though we want to be, it will sometimes be necessary in any conceivable future for CPRE and likeminded organisations to say ‘no’.
Before David Miliband’s speech, we took him on a tour of a small part of the London Green Belt, now being made greener by the Thames Chase Community Forest, and met a CPRE campaigner who recalled the battle twenty years ago to prevent 5,500 houses being built around Tillingham Hall, a development which would effectively have merged Upminster with Basildon. It was prevented because of popular support for the Green Belt – and a lot of bloody-minded, grass-roots campaigning. Once the threat of development was lifted, and those willing to speculate on the land being developed went away, it was possible to think long-term and plan the Community Forest – and anyone planting a million trees has to think long-term.
I would like to see greener Green Belt across the country. Of course it would marvellous to have more access and greater biodiversity in the Green Belt. But we’re often too busy defending what we’ve got to think very hard about improving it. If we are to have an intelligent and forward-looking debate about land use, we need to change to the texture of the national debate on planning. It is very rare to hear any politician articulate the positive role that planning can play, socially, environmentally and economically. Planning is almost invariably castigated for holding back some sectional interest – the needs of business, the desirability of building more homes – rather than praised as a means of advancing the public interest. That is one reason why David’s speech is so welcome. Of course, different people, and different political parties, will have different notions of what constitutes the public interest. But once policy goals have been set, the planning system can be a powerful means of delivering them. This government placed great emphasis on urban regeneration, on the desirability of focussing housing and retail development within towns and cities rather than permitting urban sprawl. The policy has, on the whole, been remarkably successful. The evidence is there for anyone who visits cities such as Birmingham or Manchester today and compares them with their state ten or twenty years ago. It was good to hear David Miliband celebrate the success of this urban renaissance.
We also need politicians to understand – and feel – how important the countryside is to very many people. Debates on land use and the environment can become quite abstract. But people value the countryside for its beauty, its tranquillity, its wildlife – as an open space where it is possible, at least for a period, to get away from some of the pressures of life. These ‘softer’ countryside qualities do not have immediate economic value – but valuing them properly is the mark a civilised country. I have focussed my response on the importance of the planning system and the importance of the countryside to people’s quality of life. But there were many other challenges in David Miliband’s thought-provoking speech. These include his challenge to rethink land use in the light of climate change – if you are serious about climate change, he seemed to say, how can you oppose onshore wind turbines? – and his rejection of the concept of food security, as distinct from environmental security.
We will ponder these and other questions in the coming months. And we want to know what you think! Finally, we’re grateful to David Miliband for delivering CPRE’s Eightieth Anniversary Lecture – and for engaging so seriously with the important issue of land use. Who was the last minister to give a wide-ranging speech on this topic? Was it really Lloyd George?