Little boxes everywhere (even the cows look alike)

John Gummer rails against the monotonous condition of a too-neat Britain

The drift to uniformity in town and country epitomised by the housing estate home of Ford Mondeo man and fields of oilseed rape came under scathing attack yesterday at the launch of a new map charting the character of England.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, railed against the orderly and the neat, and said children were being left a "terrible legacy" by volume housebuilders.

"If you were taken blindfold to the centre of most recent private developments you would find it impossible to know whether you were in Carlisle or Chatham," Mr Gummer said. Any difference would not be due to a sense of place but "merely connected with the marketing strategy" of the builder.

More biting criticism came from Richard Wakeford, chief executive of the Countryside Commission, one of the two government agencies which combined to produce the map.

Decisions taken from the marketplace and the debating chamber were causing a "creeping and insidious trend towards uniformity", Mr Wakeford said.

"Modern, mass-produced housing - with just a touch of the vernacular if we are lucky - is a backdrop to the Ford Mondeo parked outside, by the cupressus leylandii hedge. Every high street seems to contain the same stores.

"In the countryside, the colours of cows now give no clue as to where they are munching; the crops that are planted owe more to Brussels than to our regional differences in England. We are losing our diversity."

Lincoln Reds are almost a rare breed now in the fields of their native Lincolnshire. And other cattle with county associations, such as the Hereford, are going the same way.

The map, produced by the commission and English Nature at a cost of about pounds 100,000 each, ignores county boundaries and divides the country into 159 areas with a common wildlife, landscape, and to some extent, cultural characteristics.

Some areas, such as the South Downs, Fens or New Forest might be thought to be readily identifiable without a map. But the agencies point to others such as the Southern Magnesian Limestone Ridge which might not. It runs north from Nottingham for about 100 miles yet is only eight miles wide.

It is typified by rolling hills cut through by river gorges, more woodland than surrounding areas, limestone villages and plants such as lily of the valley and bluebells. The limestone is also a source of the clean water needed by the renowned regional breweries at Tadcaster and Masham.

Defending the map against doubts about its practical value, the agency heads maintained it would be an important tool in making better decisions about guiding landscape change and protecting wildlife. Both agencies began separate work on maps in 1994 but joined forces two years ago on realising the scope for confusion.

Mr Gummer insisted the map was "not a means of getting out of the proper protection of special places", and that statutory landscape and habitat designations would not be affected.

However, the map is likely to be used in formulating planning guidance - to help reinforce local identities and perhaps fire the "passionate sense of local loyalty" which Mr Gummer regretted the English did not share with the French.

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