It seems we are trying to build our business venture at a time when planning laws are very much in the news. This week, we have mostly been hearing about the proposed Dale Farm evictions and the rise of the shires against Tory proposals to relax the planning system.
It’s interesting that both issues should come to a head at the same time. Dale Farm, for those who live on another planet or are reading this when it’s long ago and forgotten, is a community of around 86 traveller and gypsy families at the site in Crays Hill, Essex. The site has two parts – one that has planning permission and has been home to around 40 families since the 1970s, and an adjacent site that does not have planning permission, but on which families have been living for many years. In July 2011, the culmination of a legal process ruled that Basildon Council had acted lawfully in refusing permission and an eviction notice was served. Since then, the travellers have mobilised a formidable PR machine that has seen their plight highlighted on Panorama and receiving support from entities as diverse as Jewish Solidarity, Fransican monks and Vanessa Redgrave.
Meanwhile, over at Tory central, cracks are beginning to appear and pressure is being heaped upon the unfortunate head of Greg Clark, the planning minister. Talk about a poison chalice – here is the man tasked with pushing through a policy that will have every Daily Mail reader and much of the core rural Tory vote spitting with rage. No wonder he is beginning to make soothing noises about being ‘open to suggestions’ from the likes of Sir Simon Jenkins, the National Trust chairman.
And now, to cap it all, Bill Bryson has marched into the debate in his guise as president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). I’ve been having something of a Bill Bryson fest of late. I’ve just finished reading his books on Shakespeare and the English language and am looking forward to embarking on his hefty tome At Home, which is waiting snugly on my bookshelf for me. And when I say snugly, I mean just that – it’s a brick of a book.
I’m feeling a bit let down by Bill – he is something of a hero of a mine and now I feel that he is just another of the legion of wealthy, rural-dwelling people who want to keep this green and pleasant land to themselves and through a combination of house prices and the current planning laws have managed to turn much of rural Britain into some sort of bucolic pastiche.
The fact is that Britain needs thousands of new homes. Property now is out of the reach of would-be first-time buyers – and rural properties particularly so, not in small part to people who have a second home in the countryside to which they travel from their ‘real’ life in whatever city in which they make their wealth. Where on earth, do people think these new homes should be built? Are they all, perhaps, to be crammed along the Thames estuary?
The British countryside is beautiful and needs to be protected – but the planning laws do that and will continue to do so under the Tory proposals. Meanwhile, people need affordable housing and somewhere to live – and why should they all be squashed on the fag end of our cities and towns? Surely a few new genuinely sustainable dwellings in each of our villages will bring fresh blood into communities and make the countryside a little more diverse. And diversity is key – rural Britain is, on average, wealthier, whiter, more religious, more heterosexual and older than the rest of the population. Recently, the producer of Midsomer Murders, Brian True-May got into a lot of hot water for suggesting that Midsomer wouldn’t work if it was racially diverse saying: ‘We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work.’
Research by the University of Leicester has backed this view up. They found opinions and values – which equate the countryside exclusively and unthinkingly with white Englishness – were far from uncommon amongst white rural residents and were in fact echoed in many rural towns and villages.
‘The countryside was, for a number of those we spoke to, the ‘last bastion’ of old-fashioned Englishness which needed to be preserved from the encroachment of the ‘evils’ of late modernity. Not only that, this idea of Englishness was essentially monocultural, in all its forms – white, heterosexual, middle-class, conformist, family-orientated, church-going, conservative and ‘safe’,’ said Jon Garland and Neil Chakraborti who conducted the research.
In the course of their research, the academics were subjected to a barrage of abuse and even death threats from people affronted by findings that all in the countryside may not be green or pleasant. ’For many people, notions of Englishness are very much bound up with images of an unspoilt countryside and its gently undulating landscape of farms, cottages and hedgerows, itself a very nostalgic form of national identity redolent of an England left behind many decades ago,‘ said Garland and Chakraborti. ’It also, of course, pre-dates the advent of post-war multiculturalism, and for some white rural residents this is the way that they want it to stay – whatever the realities of modern rural living may actually be.‘
The realities of modern rural living are that there are not enough houses to go around in this country and that the countryside is a place of work, not a chocolate-box idyll to be forever preserved as if on a National Trust tea towel. It needs to be more diverse in every sense and that won’t come with the present status quo of the retired and well-off buying their Ye Olde Coach House and its attendant slice of rural idyll and pulling up the rope ladder behind them.
However, sometimes a different view can come from the most surprising of sources. Recently, I was forced to wait in the road at a nearby village while a flock of sheep passed. I had always thought sheep were stupid, but not realised quite how much. My car was stationary, but they approached on block with caution stamping their feet indecisively, then en masse hurtled directly onto the front of my car. Anyway, after this comedy performance, their followed a small Asian boy who was clearly in charge and nonchalantly chewing on a stem of grass. ‘Cheers,’ he said casually as he walked past.
‘There must be another Asian family farming around here,’ I told Gully when I got home. ‘What?’ he said, appalled. ‘There’d better bloody well not be – I’M the only black in the village.’
Links: Rural racism rife reveal researchers
Back along, my family and I swapped a house for a three-acre field in Devon and a leaky caravan where we lived off-grid for two years. Sadly, we failed to get the planning permission we needed to stay. We are now back within four walls, with a proper loo and everything in a cottage in Dartmoor. So this is now a blog about living ethically amid a fabulous landscape with our home educated kids while we adjust to being 'normal' - for a while... and what we plan to do with our land next