Why can't we see the value of our countryside?

If only the politicians could understand ordinary people's feeling for our wild, natural landscapes


There are still, in this busy island, pockets of wonderful calm. On days like these we often try to seek out those places; places where we can move away from the thumping roar of everyday urban life. Places where other rhythms dominate, where other sounds are to be heard.

There are still, in this busy island, pockets of wonderful calm. On days like these we often try to seek out those places; places where we can move away from the thumping roar of everyday urban life. Places where other rhythms dominate, where other sounds are to be heard.

Cliffe, in Kent, out on the low-lying edge of the south-east coast of England, is one of those places. Cliffe. Few people knew the name before it started being mentioned as the place where the Government was thinking of building another international airport. Cliffe is one of those raggedy wild places that are so rare in the south-east, a place that the developers and crowds have passed by, until now.

It is extraordinary that a place like this can remain, with all its solitude intact, so close to the roar of London. Just half an hour from the M25, and you can be standing on a hillock looking over the marshes with the freezing easterly wind in your face. There is that particular sort of quietness in Cliffe that is made up of a dozen sounds, each one soft on the ear; the wind swishing through the reeds; the chaffinches peeping in the bare hawthorn trees; the sudden splash of a widgeon in the water.

The day that I went there was one of the few bright days we have had recently, and everywhere there was that curious reflective sheen that you see on a marshy plain where light is constantly being thrown back from water.

Scattered through the marshes were people, in groups or individually, doing very little, just walking, and watching the birds. The RSPB currently owns much of the land here, and people who like looking at the way birds curve through the air or waddle through reeds love places like Cliffe. Some of them know it so well that when they talk about the birds and the land, it is as if they are talking about friends:

"There are a couple of short-eared owls live down there," says Les England, a burly man well wrapped up against the cold. "And there are hobbies [a falcon] over there – over there, see, where they plan to build a big bridge over to London. It won't look anything like this if the airport goes ahead. It's not just the airport. They plan to fill in the land, so that Northward Hill won't even be a hill any more. I've looked at the plans. All that part there will just be concrete."

And he gestures away, to the distance where even on this bright day a mistiness lies over the plain.

Les England, which is his real name, isn't from any pressure group or a member of a political party. He's just one individual who is walking in the marshes today and who is eager to tell a stranger about just what is so precious about the area. He lives nearby, in Gravesend, where he works at the power station, and he likes to walk in Cliffe's marshland, as he says, "whenever I can, really. Once a week if I can. This place – it doesn't look like much. But then you get to know it. It would be a sad day if any of this was taken away".

As if in response to his words, a curlew wheels up from the marshes beside us. It circles and then moves up and away in the brilliant air, until it disappears, and its eerie cry comes echoing back to us.

I can't help wondering, when politicians talk about the need to develop land in this country, how many of them have ever loved a landscape. It's very easy to talk about the importance of expanding the capacity of airports in order to bring more money into Britain until you think about how such enrichment can actually end up by impoverishing us. I guess that might sound like a fluffy truism, but really, nothing is more concrete than the teeming, complicated life that goes on in a place like Cliffe. Here, tens of thousands of birds live or pass through every year, relying on the marshes and pools in the old gravel pits, or the scrubby hedgerows and the undergrowth around them.

It's hard to explain why we are drawn to look at and walk among that kind of wild, complex environment. But the people I talk to in Cliffe are certainly delighted by this wonderfully rich environment; they are informed about it, and many of them are also emotionally involved with it.

I think that environmental protests, such as the roadbuilding protests of the Eighties, tend to take politicians by surprise because the kind of people who become politicians have forgotten that many people like quieter lives, lived at a very different pace, with time to spare to watch for the short eared owls and admire the swans that are flying now, beating their great wings, over the people in Cliffe.

This Government is currently being fatally indecisive about the fate of the English landscape. On every issue that affects the land – roadbuilding, housebuilding, airport building – they are desperately keen to satisfy the demands of business. They do seem to believe that they can outrun all the complexities of the debate – the impossibility of predicting the demand for air travel, or of making housing affordable – by planning to pour more and more tarmac over the few green spaces of Britain.

Even if their plans aren't enough to satisfy the motoring lobby or the developers, they are still enough to destroy some of the aspects of Britain that still make it, here and there, a lovely place.

I have recently visited quite a few places threatened by the developers. From a muddy little wood in Essex bought up by housing developers, to lush farmland in the Upper Brede Valley in Sussex which stands in the way of potential new roads, to the marshes at Cliffe that look so convenient for a new airport: each place has its own, individual beauty, and people who love it. It's obvious that Tony Blair sees no particular beauty in Britain; he chooses to holiday in the very different landscapes of Tuscany or southern France, unless forced by the press to spend a reluctant week in Cumbria.

If only the politicians could understand ordinary people's feeling for their landscape, then they would make bolder decisions based on the need to preserve the last wild places in England.

Bolder decisions on air travel, certainly; since as the experts say, if air travel (especially aircraft fuel) was realistically taxed then demand would fall and the need for new airports would be reduced. Bolder decisions also on housebuilding, to support stringent demands for higher-density housebuilding and more use of brownfield sites in the inner cities. And bolder decisions on roadbuilding, with a moratorium on the construction of new roads and a deluge of money for the railways and buses and other public transport schemes.

Some people are saying that the talk of Cliffe as a site for a new airport is merely a red herring, to soften us up for the "compromise" solution of building yet more runways at the existing airports at Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick. If so, then the politicians are using our love of the land cynically, so that we will let them destroy the quality of life in suburbs and villages less beautiful than the lonely little village of Cliffe.

And if the Cliffe development is shelved in favour of new runways elsewhere, we know that it will be only some time before they try for Cliffe again. Because, as people have been pointing out for many years, the more roads you build, the more people drive in order to get away from their noisy, polluted backyard. And the more airports we build, the more we will want to fly away from a greying country to greener places.


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