Rise of the suburb from hell

As long as runways and real estate make more money than sheep, the countryside will be under threat.
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The Independent Online
There is as about as much chance of pickling Essex villages in aspic as there is of placing the nation's unsightly superstores underground and out of sight, where, if anywhere, they belong. As Stansted Airport spreads its wings and local villages become economic ancillaries to the aviation industry, what old-world charm they have retained into the Nineties will be lost in a concatenation of satellite TV aerials, house extensions, centrally-heated garages, 24-hour petrol stations, hi-tech warehouses and transatlantic business parks.

The Essex of John Constable will, of course, survive, but Dedham Vale and Willy Lott's cottage will exist in an increasingly hermetic heritage bubble, a world apart from the technical forces that drive the world of international travel and global economics. It is easy to connect change with decay, to see the spread of Stansted and modern communications as a form of technophilia that will steal the last sweetness from rural England.

Certainly it is true that the South-east is becoming one vast and miasmic suburb, a handmaid to London, which, bound once by its Green Belt and, more recently, by the M25 orbital motorway, is now a synonym for a region that extends from Folkestone in the east, to Swindon in the west, Brighton in the south and Peterborough in the north. Communities existing within this regional megalopolis, of whatever scale, are changing rapidly; aside from a few relatively inaccessible hillsides - Chilterns, North Downs - where grazing sheep remains marginally more profitable and practical than building mock-Tudor cul-de-sacs or investment in computer-based industry, the South-east is being urbanised (or, more properly, suburbanised) on a scale that we may well live to regret, but which is inevitable if we want the economic benefits that, say, Stansted airport can bring in its noisome wake.

The small villages in Stansted's airflow will change, particularly as those living in them want the goodies that economic development offers, and the rest of us cannot deny these to them just because we would like to drive our weekend cars through picturesque countryside. Most chocolate- box villages in the South-east, and, in fact, much of southern England, are already the preserve of the well-off. Money, rather than a superior sense of aesthetics or the occupation of some higher moral ground, allows the fortunate to revel in make-believe rural felicity. Pretty southern villages are often no more than the modern-day equivalent of Marie-Antoinette's model farm at Versailles, places to dress up in smart agricultural clobber (green wellies, wax-oiled jackets), cobble together super lunch parties for other super people and drive around only slightly muddied lanes in pristine jeeps.

Such villages have become dormitory settlements for the urban rich, who are increasingly likely to own a home in "Town" as well as the showcase Georgian rectory set in an acre or two and smelling of roses, wisteria and pot-pourri. Only the "townie" nurtures this picture-book view of the countryside, its villages and buildings. While Annabel (an interior decorator who works from a converted barn) and Johnny (something in the City) compost garden clippings, pick berries, pot jam and dry flowers, those brought up in villages dream of freezers, wide-screen televisions, central-heating, fast cars and indoor sports centres. As the Annabels and Johnnys of modern England adopt whole villages as rural playthings, those born and bred in them are moving to new estates on the fringe of towns like Colchester, Chelmsford and Ipswich. Here they aim to find work, now that farms are highly mechanised and many farmers commute, in the leisure, tourism or aviation industries encouraged by the growth of airports like Stansted.

Even if those on low to average incomes wanted to stay on in picturesque villages, local planning processes work against them. Today, it is all but impossible to erect simple timber cabins or tin sheds. Planning authorities want suburban housing rather than cheap, and to the middle class, romantic rural cabins.

Village life has become an expensive occupation, on the one hand a form of rustic suburbia, on the other an opulent toy for the new rural gentry who like to talk loudly of makes of sporting guns or of boots and saddles as if born into the latter.

Villages near Stansted will surely change, or vanish in their present form, as Airbuses bring global-village opportunities to what survives of rural Essex. From then on, if you want to see biscuit-tin villages working for their living, you will need to travel where money is hard to come by, where there are no fast trains or roads to London and where the hills are made marginally profitable by grazing sheep rather than by real estate and runways.