We all have a right to a rural dream

'People who leave their filthy streets to tramp the hills of Britain feel that the land really is theirs, even if they are excluded'

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What is it that pulls people out of the city? For some, it may be a negative decision, the final impatience with the roar and the filth. For others, it will be more positive. Because even for many people who have never lived anywhere but the urban and suburban hutches of Greater London, the countryside still has a siren call.

What is it that pulls people out of the city? For some, it may be a negative decision, the final impatience with the roar and the filth. For others, it will be more positive. Because even for many people who have never lived anywhere but the urban and suburban hutches of Greater London, the countryside still has a siren call.

It may be a nostalgia for something we might have touched as children, when we were allowed suddenly out of the tiny, flat confines of the back garden or the local park and into the complicated wildernesses of woods and beaches. Then we would see how other people lived, in contact with animals and land and seasons, and we would learn briefly how to milk goats or gather bilberries until it was time to shut down our senses and return to the suburbs.

We've all been encouraged to believe that the pressure we are currently seeing on housing in the south-east of Britain has one, very rational, explanation. People need jobs, and the jobs are in London. So doesn't that mean that even if you live in the north, you should be happy to sell up your home, leave your community and head south?

A report published last week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation questioned that explanation. Instead, it posed the theory that the reason why there don't seem to be enough houses to go round in the south is because southerners aren't happy where they are. They don't like their big, buzzy cities. They keep heading outwards, into the villages, and where they go, the builders struggle to keep up. This drift, from city to country, rather than from north to south, is apparently the greatest threat to keeping any green alive beneath the concrete sprawl.

It's a fascinating idea, partly because it shows how far people are from behaving in the way that observers think they should behave. It has become fashionable to believe that British people are now united in looking for an urban lifestyle, that all we need are a few cappuccino bars and loft developments and we will all start living a smart singleton life. Sure, that life can seem good. It has a peppy soundtrack. It looks great in magazines and in would-be trendy British films. And some people can't get enough of it.

As the Rowntree report indicates, people are still drawn to live in London from all over the world; from migrants who are desperate and in need of asylum, to migrants who are hugely wealthy and looking for a chic base to work and to shop. Yet at the same time the city is also repelling many of its longest-standing inhabitants, pushing them constantly out of its orbit and into the surrounding fields and hills.

But what happens when urbanites try to make their dreams a reality, and sell their dinky flat for a house on the outskirts of an ancient village? Some, no doubt, find ways to live fully within the environment they desire. But too many don't. Still attached to their urban jobs, their urban shopping habits, their urban friends, they move out to villages but go on living a city life, spending their whole time isolated from the environment around them, sealed in their detached houses or people-carriers, dashing from home to work, from home to supermarkets, from home back to the city centre.

One typical article in a newspaper last week described some petty feud in a village where new houses now sell for more than £250,000. One inhabitant complained that the village he had lived in for 30 years "is sadly becoming a transit town for well-heeled commuters". And, of course, these commuters help to destroy the very environment they come to find.

I remember visiting one protest last year, an action against a housing development that became briefly famous because it was spearheaded by a "teenage ecowarrior", Christiana Tugwell. She and her colleagues in protest had camped out in a little bit of wilderness, Hockley Wood in Essex, which was under threat of development into exactly the kind of homes that those fleeing the urban scene long for: big detached houses with huge garages and gardens, on the edge of a village, overlooking a sweep of unspoilt countryside. The protest was doomed: the wood, with its birches, its brambles, and its silty ponds, was to be destroyed by the very people who were longing for those rural charms.

The horrible truth is that the countryside that urban people dream about is rarely reachable. And if we chase our dreams on to the very hills and fields that look so tempting, we destroy those dreams in the very process of trying to pin them down. Estimates of the new housing that will be needed if this drift to the country continues are constantly being revised, but last week's Rowntree report put it at over four million new households by 2021, which would mean for the beleaguered south-east a new town the size of Newbury every year.

These figures should prove once again to our slow-footed Government that it must plough money into making cities more attractive. Any more development of the last green spaces of the south should be resisted, or within a generation the green will have been wiped out. Only when every inch of every brownfield site in London has been developed, when the traffic has been calmed and every street cleaned, only when every existing home that is lying empty has been made habitable, should the bulldozers move into woods like that in Hockley.

But even if we manage to persuade city people to stay put, I still think we should take seriously the constant desire of so many urbanites to have some contact with a more rural life, a life in which the seasons are heralded by a vast turnaround of colour and light and sound, rather than just a blip on the thermometer. If we did, we would understand that the much vaunted rift between the city and country doesn't really exist. It is a political chimera. Just as many people who live in the countryside don't really live there, they just commute from their villages into the city, so many people who live in cities still feel a deep attachment to the periods they spend in the countryside.

Even weekend walkers feel that the land they walk on somehow belongs to them as well as to the farmers and the developers. Why else would the right to roam be such a hotly debated issue? It's because people who leave their filthy streets to tramp the hills of Britain, who lie on the grass and watch the clouds high in the sky, who feel their hearts lift when they see the skylarks rising above the dunes, feel that the land really is theirs, even if they are excluded from living there.

So the grim sight of the peers in the House of Lords last month tabling endless nonsensical amendments to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill was infuriating. Why should these unelected squires be allowed to outlaw the right to roam on "land predominantly covered by water", as though that's what ramblers wanted, or make it a criminal offence to "annoy a landowner", or swim in a river?

And even those people who are only able to dip into the countryside know well that the rural landscape of our childhood is constantly changing and disappearing. We want to have a say in how our countryside now develops. Those reports which turn up with depressing regularity in our newspapers tell us what we already know; that much of the countryside is dying and falling silent. The recent BBC-sponsored survey by Oxford University entomologists showed that one in five of the insect species that used to live in our countryside has been wiped out over the last 50 years. The silent spring is no longer a vague menace; already the springs are getting quieter.

Perhaps city people can be condemned for investing too much romance in the countryside, imagining an idyll that no longer exists. But why should our dreams be less important than those of the farmers and developers who are free to destroy the land we love? The countryside is too important for its future to be decided just by the people who live in it.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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