Terence Blacker: What is the point of the countryside?

Ministers pay lip service to a version of country life that owes more to 'Heartbeat' than to the real world
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The Independent Online

A row of interesting complexity has developed. Some lovely countryside (a good thing) is shielded from suburbanism by (a horrid thing) fast-growing leylandii. The preservation of lovely scenery (hurrah!) depends directly upon the exclusion from it of all but a rich man and his pals (boo!). Weiland, a townie who lives most of the time in London, says he is protecting the countryside while the locals are arguing that they would quite like to see the countryside, too.

An Asbo has been threatened against Weiland. On his behalf, the local council is considering placing a tree preservation order on the leylandii - something of a first, one assumes.

Behind this relatively small spat, there lurk bigger questions. What is the countryside for? Is the best of it often little more than an amenity for those privileged enough to seal off a bit of rural peace for themselves? Is not the need to look after it of rather less pressing than the everyday necessities of ordinary people - jobs, houses, transport, a bit of sun in the back yard, perhaps? If farmers are no longer feeding us, and are receiving grants for not rooting up hedges and spraying their fields, then precisely how does their land earn its keep?

It has become clear over recent years that the Government has not found satisfactory answers to these questions. The view from London has been that there is nothing about rural priorities that deserve special pleading. While playing lip-service to a version of country life that owes more to Heartbeat than to the real world, ministers have made decisions which have reflected a distinctly urban view.

We are a crowded, under-housed country, the argument goes. We are well-placed to bolster the national income by becoming the airport of Europe. Cities play their part in this new Britain, providing labour and dynamism. The countryside, which has less of both, can offer space.

"There is a hell of a lot of environment out there," a farmer once told me, defending his right to dig up the hedges between his fields and, possibly for the only time in his life, he was in step with government thinking. Rural beauty and calm are important, of course, but man is clever enough to shift these things around when money, goods or people need to be transported and there is money to be made.

So the concept of the green belt, for example, has suddenly become a rather flexible one. At the same time as John Prescott was telling Parliament "loud and clear" that the Government had no plans to relax planning controls on the green belt, an average of 2,400 acres of that very land was being built upon every year. The solution to the housing problem, we were told, was flexibility. One area of green belt may be claimed by developers but elsewhere concrete will be replaced by grass.

The result is there before our eyes. Large pockets of protected land is being sold in anticipation of the planning laws being relaxed. The value of green belt land, a happy estate agent has calculated, has increased by 229 per cent since 1996.

This tragically wrong-headed idea of a moveable, replaceable countryside will be music the ears of big business, developers and international airlines, but it will erode the quality of our lives. A report published today by the Campaign to Protect Rural England provides an alarming snapshot of what has been happening: 21 square miles of rural Britain, an area the size of Southampton, is being built over every year. The total area of what the report describes as "tranquil countryside" has declined by a fifth between the 1960s and 1994, and has accelerated since then.

According to the CPRE report, it is not only our sprawling cities, towns and villages that are eroding rural land, but an attitude to air travel which it accurately describes as "predict and provide". Then there is the Government's love affair with supermarkets, which has necessitated more juggernaut traffic from suppliers, and more out-of-town driving from customers.

It is time to give the lie to the comforting idea, advanced by developers and ministers, that those who oppose the degradation of the landscape are largely cosseted country-dwellers anxious to keep the rest of the hard-working population from their back yards.

Britain's countryside and the plants, birds and mammals that depend upon it are not a luxury. They are an invaluable, diminishing resource that adds immeasurably to the experience of living in these islands. The countryside is everyone's back garden.

It is politically difficult, and requires courage and integrity, for a government to speak up for something as old-fashioned and difficult to define as the pleasure derived from the countryside, particularly when it is ranged against it hard statistics of growth and profit, not to mention votes. But, if today's generation of politicians lack the nerve to protect the land against bulldozers, brick, concrete and tarmac, they will be cursed by generations to come.