Podium: Give power back to the country people

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The Independent Culture
Kate Parminter

From a speech to the Local Government Association by the director of the Council for the Protection

of Rural England

THE COUNTRYSIDE can make an enormous contribution to the quality of life of everyone. This is more than just a matter of retaining a a pleasant view. The natural and aesthetic beauty of our landscapes are also the source of personal and social well being, offering every citizen relaxation, peace and tranquillity. It is also a priceless environmental resource. But more than this, it is also fragile and finite. In short, we must learn to conserve and, where possible, renew resources for future generations.

The countryside is increasingly threatened by rising traffic levels, urbanisation, inward migration, loss of landscape features, agricultural industrialisation, the depletion of natural resources and the disposal of waste. The rising traffic levels and transport problems in rural areas perhaps go some way to explaining why, in a recent MORI survey, people in rural areas put transport as their number one concern. As motorways and trunk roads become increasingly congested, so more lorries are tempted to rat-run on rural roads, including the number of lorries terrorising small villages. To that end, we welcome the Government's recent Transport White Paper - both in the new policy direction it establishes, and the emphasis on reducing the need to travel and widening transport choice. We also welcome the pounds 45m a year announced in the March budget for rural bus services, as a start to reversing decline.

We have some of the finest countryside in the world. Two thirds of tourists say they come to the United Kingdom because of our countryside, and two thirds of us go to the countryside every year because of its beauty. Our finest countryside, including National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is especially important, and deserves special protection.

Hedgerows are some of the oldest features in our landscape and a precious cultural and environmental resource. Yet current legislation provides protection for only one in five hedgerows, and means that local authorities are powerless to protect those which are locally important, including Cornish bank hedges, from removal and loss through lack of management.

We want policy changes which will enhance local decision-making and local power. For example: statutory responsibility to be given to local authorities to protect and manage Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty; primary legislation to protect more hedgerows and other landscape features, giving local people a say on which hedgerows are special and deserving of protection; giving statutory responsibility to local authorities to set clear environmental objectives, and identify indicators of environmental change, as a means to ensure targets are met in development plans.

Rural areas should be both attractive and genuine places for work. Too often, development is not sensitive to the resources and character of the countryside. No one can doubt that a new way to plan the homes we need, while protecting the countryside, is long overdue. I warmly welcome the promise of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to end "predict and provide", and committing the Government to allowing more local flexibility.

A vision for a sustainable countryside demands a commitment to urban regeneration. As such, CPRE was delighted that the Deputy Prime Minister echoed our call in December for an "urban renaissance". We now want urgent action from the Urban Task Force to address the issue of building in our towns in a way that enhances town living.

Let me be clear about what I mean. I mean that no Regional Planning Guidance, Structure or Local Plan should be prepared without a comprehensive study of the potential to increase the use of urban land and buildings. That will make a reality of the Government's target of at least 60 per cent of future housing taking place on brownfield sites. Nothing less will do.

Let me also give the Chancellor a free piece of advice. Gordon - harmonise VAT rates on newly built and converted houses. This would reduce the current incentive developers have to build on greenfield sites. By doing that, the November "Green Budget" really will be green!

It says on the back of my CPRE membership card that the CPRE helps people "to protect their local countryside where there is a threat, to enhance it where there is opportunity, and to keep it beautiful, productive and enjoyable for everyone".

This is the text for my leadership of the CPRE, and it is one that I know we can work together to achieve.