Let me tell you about a beautiful country estate called Englefield in Berkshire. Think Downton Abbey on steroids: at 20,000 acres, it is four times the size of the nearby Highclere estate, where the TV series is filmed. The pile includes a vast Elizabethan manor, set in rolling farmland, and ancient woodland with a magnolia plantation and Lebanon cedars adorning the horizon.
Who lives in a house like this? Richard Benyon, the Conservative MP for Newbury, whose family has owned the estate for nearly 200 years. Mr Benyon is a pleasant man, a one-nation, Cameroon Tory. He cannot help it that he is Parliament's richest MP, worth around £110m, and is the great-great-grandson of Lord Salisbury, another Old Etonian prime minister. As David Cameron says, it's not about the family you were born into, it's about where you are going. Indeed, I normally wouldn't mention how vast and lovely Mr Benyon's estate is, were it not relevant to what he is doing in his day job, in the slightly more crowded surroundings of Whitehall as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Natural Environment, Water and Rural Affairs.
Mr Benyon, you see, is overseeing the erosion of the protection of village greens. It's all about getting more houses built, relaxing planning rules for developers. It is not the little rectangles of sward in quaint villages, nestled between post-boxes and oak trees, which are most at risk. It's the common land where communities gather, families walk their dogs and play football, that faces being gobbled up. Sometimes it is a patch of scrubland, perhaps a little bit overgrown, but it is at the core of local people's outdoor activities. Fewer and fewer of us have gardens (let alone a magnolia plantation), and we depend on parks, greens and open spaces for our oxygen, our good health. Often it will be communities in the more deprived areas, with a high density of flats and no gardens, which rely on these open spaces the most.
For years, communities have been able to apply for village green status for their local patch of land, even if it doesn't meet the chocolate box stereotype. As the Open Spaces Society says: "A green is any land on which a significant number of inhabitants of any area has indulged in lawful sports and pastimes, for 20 years, as of right." Once it has that status, it should be protected from development, no matter who owns the land. There are 3,870 registered greens in England and Wales, covering 8,770 acres. When you think about it, that's less than half the size of Mr Benyon's Englefield estate – we don't take up that much land, we commoners. Our families don't need 20,000 acres to take the dog for a walk, or let the kids kick a football. Half an acre would do.
But Mr Benyon, under the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, is weakening this protection. Last week, Defra announced new regulations on village greens. The Government claims that spurious bids are made to protect land that's ripe for development. Mr Benyon said: "Towns across the country have been held back from getting the developments they want through misuse of the village green system."
The Open Spaces Society has hit back, saying the new rules will see green public places disappear under the developer's digger. They include forcing local people to submit their application for village green status within one year of their use being challenged, rather than two. Landowners (private and public) can also deposit a statement of intent with the authorities to end a green's recreational use. The Open Spaces Society says this means locals may not be aware of the landowner's intention until it is too late. A year may seem a long time, but it can take months to gather evidence. What is more, locals will have to raise £1,000 to make a village green status application – and that can take time. The clock may have been ticking for months already without anyone noticing.
I realise there is an urgent need for housing. But it should not be at the expense of what is the only outside space people have. I note that in the 19th century, one of Mr Benyon's ancestors, Richard Fellowes Benyon, rebuilt the village on the estate, providing it with a swimming pool, soup kitchen and school. If some of that philanthropic zeal has been passed down through the genes, perhaps the minister can leave our land in peace.
Vote – but keep out
One of the most noticeable things about party conference season – which finished, finally, last Wednesday – is the different levels of security checks each party inflicts on their activists (and lobbyists and journalists). Obviously, being in power means heavy, airport-style screening. Security at Labour, apparently for lack of money but also an overwhelming sense that nobody wants to disrupt or attack Ed Miliband (apart from the Daily Mail) was laughably lax – no scanners, and only cursory flashing of passes as you went into the Brighton conference centre. But cutting off a party, particularly a governing one, from the public seems odd when that very party is trying to win people's votes.
Politicians of all parties cannot seem any more out of touch than they are now. Yet, returning to Westminster on Thursday, I was alarmed to see a new 10ft-high iron perimeter fence has been erected along the main public access area of the House of Commons. From the pavement, you can no longer see the statue of Oliver Cromwell which stands near St Stephen's Entrance. What rich irony! There seems no point to this fence, given that any would-be intruder who tried to scale the 3ft wall that is already there would fall down a 15ft drop, and still be unable to breach the tight security of the Commons. Its only purpose, surely, is to put further distance between MPs and the people. This is a crazy move by the Commons authorities.
Three times a lady
Good news on the battle to see more positive female role models in the media and society in the last week. Karren Brady, one of the country's leading businesswomen, was unveiled as a Tory business tsar.
Speaking at the Conservative conference, she revealed how her mentor, David Sullivan, responded when she suggested he buy Birmingham City football club and she run it. "Football? Very male dominated. You'll have to be twice as good as the men to be thought of as only half as good."
Ms Brady is only 44, and yet has remained prominent for two decades. In these times of fading celebrity, her staying power is impressive. I hope she can encourage a new generation of businesswomen to make themselves heard.Reuse content