Shaun Spiers’ Response

1shaun-spiers-3-120×180.jpgShaun has had a chance to type up his response to David Miliband’s speech on the future of land use – click on ‘continue reading’ below to see what he has to say.

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?


12 responses

  1. I got more out of David Miliband’s speech when I got home and read it than I did at the meeting, which in connection with the our support of ‘reducing the need to travel’ makes one ponder. At least I went by train.

    Your response was ‘fit for purpose’, if I may say so, not condescendingly I hope, but I do worry about the ability of DEFRA to box its weight across Government, which was the substance behind my specific question to David on his department’s efforts to prevent other department’s schemes ruining the environment and exacerbating climate change factors.

    10 March, 2007 at 9:53 am

  2. David Miliband’s speech was interesting but as Shaun points out,it really does appear that David does not believe in opposing onshore wind turbines. Yet wind farms are site specific. Support was given to the largest Urban Wind Farm on a contaminated site but it has not meet the conditions attached when planning permission was given.

    However in the North East they are not in general performing as expected. Some have been consented although close to houses so affecting tranquillity. Proximity to Airports should not be an option whilst the the two systems being developed to mitigate the potential effect on radar are not yet tried and tested. These wind farms would not be economically viable without the hidden subsidy from ROCs paid for by the consumer.

    The premium for eligible sources,from ROCs available to the generator in 2004 was more than £337m. In 2005 was probably over £592m and in 2006 it will probably be even more. As part of its Energy Policy is the Government distributing this premium to ensure new technologies are being wisely developed to contribute “to a basket of technologies”?

    11 March, 2007 at 1:28 am

  3. David Miliband is right to suggest that we need a radical re-think about the way we use our land. The question is….are we doing the right thinking?

    At a time when the world is facing huge challenges in terms of climate change, water availability and population growth we need to be saving every acre of green space for future generations. We need to completely overturn our current approach to housing by creating small communities that are both environmentally and socially sustainable. To this end we should be considering a new concept, namely “diffuse development”.

    By diffuse development we mean the provision of small clusters of very low impact housing in farmyards throughout the country. Built of local materials, discretely placed and subject to the planning condition that they must be available for letting, diffuse development provides a number of important environmental benefits through the use of renewable energy at the local level, sustainable water use and improved flood management. It also helps to develop local communities and their businesses by providing affordable housing close to the place of work and in so doing encourages social and occupational mobility.

    More information at:

    11 March, 2007 at 7:32 pm

  4. Cavan Scott

    I agree that it is very important for organisations such as CPRE to say ‘no’ at times. However, it is important that the ‘no’ isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. A well-researched, reasoned ‘no’ is far more powerful than an immediate, resounding negative. It shows that views have been taken into account, the opposing view is valued but has been rejected after due consideration and, most importantly, isn’t so easy to dismiss as crackpot views of a vocal minority.

    I’m not for a second saying the CPRE would be guilty of such things, but unfortunately the rantings of the vocal minority so often drown out the useful voice of the reasoned protestor. Recent successes by organisations such as the CPRE show that the reasoned approach works.

    By all means say ‘no’, by all means protest, by all means stand up for your beliefs but please do it wisely.

    12 March, 2007 at 11:35 am

  5. Aargh! I have just read David Uren’s response and looked at his web site. This is just an attempt by landowners to ride a coach and horses through the sustainability approach to planning policy that is against any development that is dependent on use of the motor car. I do hope that CPRE will not be taken in by this nonsense of ‘living countryside’. The whole point of rural areas is the absence of people – otherwise they would be urban. Don’t get taken in by this madness, lip service to which, I gathered from Elinor Goodman’s efforts, is a feature of the rural affordable housing lobby. Don’t be taken in. These landowners are just trying to make money, having discovered that the new EU CAP arrangements are stopping up that lucrative source, at the expense of the rurality which we are trying to protect!

    12 March, 2007 at 5:27 pm

  6. press reports constantly threaten a great concreting over of the countryside. Not surprisingly, people get scared – especially because the threats are repeated over and over again. But the truth is that, despite the promises, there has been no marked increase in house building in the Thames Gateway, or anywhere else in the UK for that matter.

    On the contrary: house building is at an all time low – lower in fact than at any time since the Second World War. That is why house prices are so high. There are too many buyers chasing too few homes. The houses being built are not enough to meet the supply, and so the prices spiral in one direction only.

    The fears that we are going to concrete over the countryside are wrong because so few new homes are being built. But we could increase number of new homes by five million over the next ten years and it still would barely make a dent in the available greenfield land. That is because Britain is overwhelmingly green – even if the bit of it you choose to live in is built up. Fully three quarters of Britain is earmarked for farming, but only one tenth is built up. What’s more, nearly a third of that farmland is not needed. There is more than enough room to expand into without substantially undermining Britain’s countryside.

    13 March, 2007 at 9:27 am

  7. richard cowen

    I was not able to make David Miliband’s speech to CPRE but I agree he has raised important issues. So far as I recall CPRE has never aimed to keep the countryside as a museum piece but has sought to ensure development is in the right place and appropriate for it. And some parts of the countryside should not be developed unless there are exceptional reasons. As shaun says, there is always a need to say “No”.

    That of course leads us to democracy and the potential threat there may be to that should all the Barker Report proposals come to fruition. The right of propoerty owners to object – even be NIMBY’s_ should not be watered down and certainly talk of offering payment to secure their approval of schemes is abhorrent.

    Which does then lead me to wind farms, where Mr Miliband and I must fundamentally disagree. Why does he only mention wind farms as a renewable source? That does appear to be the current trend, whatever we are told about other forms of renewable energy also being encouraged.

    The problem with wind farms is not just their highly intrusive nature in some of our valued landscapes, their potential disturbance to residents when built close to houses (see for example the lengthy article about the problems arising from one wind farm in Lincolnshire written in the Mail on 10 March). We are also entitled to question whether they are achieving their main purpose which is to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This is partly because, as Elizabeth Mann says, they are not generating as much electricity as is claimed for them. But perhaps the main reason is the need for shadowing from conventional power stations – and no one seems willing to say just where the savings are being made that should arise from existing wind farms nor how great the saving is. We are of course always given high predicted figures in the planning applications – but are these in fact being met.

    14 March, 2007 at 9:22 pm

  8. Nick Schoon

    James Heartfield should get his facts right. Far from being at an all time low, house building has been rising since 2001 and last year it reached the highest level – in England – since 1990. Last year’s output was a little below the postwar average (1946 to 2006) of 209,000 homes a year – but it’s plain wrong to say housebuilding is at an all time low. See

    15 March, 2007 at 11:25 am

  9. I thought it might be appropriate to reiterate Lord Falconer’s comment made when he spoke at a CPRE conference in November 2001.

    “So far as CPRE is concerned, their aim not to curtail development but to plan constructively so rural beauty is not sacrificed”
    This is as relevant now as it was then.

    16 March, 2007 at 8:09 pm

  10. Charles Stuart

    If David Milliband, in his excellent talk, had expressed the need to restrict windfarms to areas where the landscape is not destroyed. I would not be so concerned. Richard Cowen points out the the probability of the uneconomic nature of these destructors our natural landscape. There must be a presumption against windfarms.

    21 March, 2007 at 10:51 am

  11. I am pleased that your correspondent Howard Thomas was able to look further at the concept of “diffuse development”.

    As the full report makes clear, the purpose of diffuse development is to help protect the rural environment. As a potential solution to our housing and land use needs, it is driven absolutely by the need for sustainability. The report can be found at:

    Diffuse development warrants further investigation and we welcome constructive debate.

    23 March, 2007 at 9:17 am

  12. I am sorry my counterpart from Dorset appears to think “the point of rural areas is the absence of people”. Of course he is right to value the sensation of being alone in magnificent landscapes or even in unremarkable countryside. No one should argue with the importance of protecting that. But he might reflect on who shaped the appearance of the countryside we live in – after the glaciers, it was people, particularly farmers. They – and other land managers – continue to do so, and will do in the future. It’s also worth recalling that villages and small market towns are part of our “rural areas”, and I believe that CPRE’s vision must support the continuation, enhancement and, in some cases, restoration of well-functioning rural communities. The Elinor Goodman commission’s recommendations on housing were not perfect but it was an important attempt to address a genuinely difficult problem. I fear Howard Thomas’s approach would leave us with villages for the rich (and no one to provide services for them!) as well as a countryside that had to be handed over to local authority “countryside management” departments because there was no one else around to manage it. That really would be the nightmare.

    27 March, 2007 at 6:20 pm