Countryside `is starting to look like theme park'

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The Independent Online
A proliferation of show-farms, garden centres and heritage sites is threatening to turn the countryside into a "Merrie England theme park", according to the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

In a report, The Cluttered Countryside, to be published today, the conservation charity warns of the cumulative and suburbanising effect of changes, from white-on-brown tourist signs to golf courses.

"Tourism is a rough and demanding lover," observes the council. But equally damaging to the landscape is the rash of telecommunication masts put up by mobile phone companies, and the garish fascias of petrol stations.

Only last week, John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, spoke out against a neat, "homogeneous world" in which diversity was ironed out by commerce. Some of Mr Gummer's dislikes, such as out-of-town shopping centres and anonymous housing estates on greenfield sites, are shared by the council. But the Secretary of State would balk at the charity's regulatory pre- scription.

At today's launch of the report, broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, the council's president, will stress the value of a countryside free of the "unnecessary paraphernalia" of modern society. "Reclaiming the countryside from the tide of clutter would be good for business as well as the environment."

The report starts from the premise that ugliness, like beauty, comes in small packages. While there may be a big fuss over a new dual carriageway, the slow accretion of changes such as an advertising hoarding, a glass phone box or a signpost throttles the countryside by stealth.

Though the council insists that protecting the countryside is not reactionary, its recommendations would require a hefty tranche of legislation. High priority is given to curbing "brown signs" disease.

Originally the signs were restricted to tourist attractions with more than 20,000 visitors a year. Now they are available to almost anyone willing to meet the cost. To Mr Gummer's department, however, it is a case of "balancing safeguards for the countryside against economic needs".

The council wants the signs made subject to the same controls as advertising and a limit set on the number of businesses qualifying. It also recommends tightening planning controls on caravan sites, "land-hungry" leisure developments such as golf courses, farm buildings and telecommunications masts.

Masts are regarded by conservationists as the most serious current threat to the skyline. Those less than 15 metres high are effectively free of planning controls - approval can be refused within 28 days if there is a "serious threat to amenity" - and councils have been instructed to "respond positively" to applications to erect taller ones.

New masts should be a last resort and mobile phone companies should share, rather than duplicate, equipment says the council. If England is to retain a landscape worthy of the name, it cannot afford "an uncontrolled weedgrowth of ironmongery" on the hills.