Terence Blacker: A real revolution for the countryside

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The Independent Online

The background to the report is that rural Britain faces a serious, double-headed problem. On the one hand, the need for new houses is putting current planning regulations under increasing strain. On the other, much of the farmland which is generally regarded as sacrosanct when it comes to building homes, consists of what Balen calls "ugly monoculture fields" that do little for the environment or economy.

The answer, the argument goes, is to release agricultural land and parts of the green belt for new housing developments surrounded by newly planted woods. "If some of these were converted to sympathetic development consisting of 90 per cent woodland, including small lakes and rivers, and 5 per cent each for housing and supporting infrastructure, each farm whose use was changed in this way would yield 200,000 square metres of new woodland, together with 140 average-sized homes." Three per cent of land thus converted would, Balen claims, produce 950,000 new houses and 130,000 hectares of wood in England and Wales.

The idea raises some pretty obvious objections. It is all very to present a pastoral idyll of trees, lakes and streams, but such places need upkeep and will need to yield income. Assuming that they are not going to be mixed woodland, will they be an environmental resource, risking a pattern of grimly formulaic theme parks across Britain? Who would own the land?

But at least, unlike Mr Prescott, Balen has dared to suggest that crisis facing the countryside requires revolutionary thinking. At present, the approach to new housing, particularly in the South-east, is the result of seat-of-the-pants thinking. Town and village boundaries are swelling under disorganised development. Housing estates are accruing along motorways and main roads.

The innate snobbery of rural Britain exacerbates the problem. Those who own the landscape, the farmers, take a lordly attitude towards incomers (often the very people bringing life and work into the community), and at the same time are ruthlessly determined to maximise their own profits through subsidies and conversion of agricultural buildings. The very people who like to present themselves as the custodians of the countryside, and whose union has been the first to criticise the new report, are quite happy to cash in themselves. By contrast, those who have recently moved to the country are generally keen to resist the idea that others should be able to follow them.

It is a shambles, and is getting worse. Linking the needs of an expanding population with ecological concerns might cause the biggest concerted change to the landscape since the Enclosure Acts, but the alternative, a process of erosion and destruction based on an out-of-date model of rural life, may turn out to be far more harmful.

More than football on their mind

There is feverish activity among players as they prepare for the summer's World Cup in Germany. The best pitches are being checked out. Professionals are expecting unprecedented physical rigours during the tournament. Financial rewards are anticipated to be spectacular.

They will not, as it happens, be playing football but another game altogether. Germany is expecting a prostitution bonanza. In addition to the 8,000 licensed sex workers, another 40,000 will soon be arriving. Mobile brothels, in the form of caravans and dormobiles, will set up shop in car parks, on campsites and on bits of wasteland.

Enterprisingly, Switzerland is entering into the spirit of the occasion by attempting to lure restless female fans across the border. Mister Switzerland Renzo Blumenthal, above, is fronting an advertising campaign - featuring of muscle-bound Swiss hunks leering at the camera - to promote "Ladies' Specials" trips.

Is anyone going to the World Cup to watch the football?

* An unhappy testament to our new way of leisure is contained in a report which proudly trumpets the fact that gambling in Britain has increased sevenfold since gaming laws were "modernised" five years ago.

With on-line poker booming, pernicious and mindless money quizzes making their way from cable to the shameless ITV network, and super-casinos on the way, it will not be long before this country can boast that it leads the world in gambling. The compilers of the report are delighted, reporting "significant gains for the wider economy in terms of economic productivity. More jobs will be created, leading to an increased standard of living."

If the Conservatives had engineered this downward spiral in public welfare, which reduces millions to supine idiocy, all for private profit, one would be depressed but not surprised. That it is the work of New Labour is cause for genuine shame.

terblacker@aol.com

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