A labour camp? Not in my back yard...

If we don't rant when someone threatens our surroundings, who is there to do it for us?
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The Independent Online

When I was a student, some friends developed a wilfully annoying habit of accusing anyone who did not find funny a sarcastic word or cheeky deed of theirs, of having suffered "a sense-of-humour failure". I think of this sometimes when accusations of "nimbyism" are bandied around.

When I was a student, some friends developed a wilfully annoying habit of accusing anyone who did not find funny a sarcastic word or cheeky deed of theirs, of having suffered "a sense-of-humour failure". I think of this sometimes when accusations of "nimbyism" are bandied around.

Person A diminishes the environment of person B, and when B complains, A cries "nimby!" It is a shame that such a pejorative term has been invented for someone who cares about their back yard. We are all nimbies to some extent, and a good thing, too, even if nimbyism implies that we couldn't give a damn about someone else's back yard. For if we don't rant when someone threatens our surroundings, who is there to do it for us? Planning officers? Don't make me laugh. In fact I can't laugh. I've suffered a sense-of-humour failure.

About 10 miles from where I live in Herefordshire - so not quite in my back yard - a grotesque development is taking shape. An industrial farmer (and that is no longer an oxymoron) is planting 280 acres of strawberries, which in itself is reasonable enough; they've got to be grown somewhere.

But this outfit, S&A Davies, has taken several strides beyond what is reasonable. Strawberries need to be picked, so S&A Davies is also constructing a site for 300 caravans, to house 1,300 fruit-pickers. They will come from overseas, principally Eastern Europe, which adds "xenophobe" to the slurs the so-called nimbies must bear. Yet who among us would not object to what is essentially a labour camp? A 62m x 37m "amenity centre" is being built for the workers. It will contain a gym, a disco, a cinema and a doctors' surgery.

S&A Davies, which already has contracts to supply supermarket chains with strawberries, says this demonstrates a social conscience; protesters say phooey to social conscience, it means that the fruit-pickers will hand the little money they earn back to their employer. It also means that when the strawberry-growing is done, there will be an infrastructure in place ready for a full-scale housing development.

All this is unfolding in the hamlet of Brierley, home to 31 people, understandably aghast at the thought of a 1,300-strong workforce taking up residence in their back yards. S&A Davies says the workforce will be temporary; the camp, however, will be permanent. Not a scrap of planning permission has yet been obtained. There are implications for the rest of us, too.

These strawberries will feel no rain or direct sunlight, although plenty of chemicals. They are to be planted under miles of huge polytunnels, which are proliferating so much that rural England is being stealthily turned into a polythene, and not-so-pleasant, land. Polytunnels generate intensive-farming conditions on ground that could not otherwise cope; the price we pay for wanting to eat strawberries in January.

Last Friday, I attended an emotional meeting of the Arrow Valley Residents' Association, formed specifically to fight this development. The meeting was packed with people beside themselves with worry about their back yards. S&A Davies has applied for planning permission, but has unsettled the local planning authority by saying that it will appeal against a negative ruling.

Herefordshire cannot afford the fight, ergo it seems to have given tacit consent. The residents are made of sterner stuff, and have a high-profile mouthpiece in the form of the television gardener Monty Don, who told me that in 12 years of living in Herefordshire, he has never known such cohesion of spirit and will.

A perennial complaint of rural folk about incomers from the city is that, like Linda Snell in The Archers, they enjoy being surrounded by verdant meadows and dingly dells, but moan when the farmer sticks up a barn or something else essential to his livelihood. The difference is that some of these residents are farmers. Many have lived in Herefordshire all their lives. And they are determined to fight the thing tooth and nail, although S&A Davies appears to be the immoveable object to their irresistible force.

Obviously, farming must evolve to survive. Polytunnels, like wind farms, have a role to play in modern life whether we admire the look of them or not. Moreover, Brierley Court, the farm where all this is happening, has relied before on itinerant labour. But then it was four or five caravans and 20 or 30 workers, picking hops. "It was by no means organic heaven," says Monty Don, "but it was in context." This scheme, by contrast, is so out of context with its environment as to be, for those still with a sense of humour, laughable. So let me put some context back. Herefordshire makes considerably more money from tourism than it does from farming. But will the tourists want to come to a blighted landscape? The council needs to find the same resolve as the residents, and soon. Planning laws should apply to the countryside no less than the towns.

In the meantime, I've gone right off supermarket strawberries.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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