Green-wellies time for Blair and Co.

By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 14th January 1997.

There could hardly be a better time for routing the rural destruction lobby. The Countryside Movement, mouthpiece of rapacious landowners, seems to have fallen out with its funders, just as it has been discredited by its links to the gun lobby. The release of the latest farm subsidy figures – and MAFF’s continued refusal to release the names of the beneficiaries – has poured yet more single malt on the flames of public resentment.

At the Soil Association’s conference a fortnight ago, supermarket chains expressed their determination to buy organic food, but lamented the fact that they couldn’t find it in Britain. The trunk roads programme has all but collapsed, and there is deep public unhappiness about the Department of the Environment’s unwillingness to reduce the impact of the new house building it predicts. There has, in other words, never been a better month for Labour to start taking sides. It even has the opportunity pre-arranged – on January 25th, Robin Cook and Michael Meacher are addressing a conference called “A Green Labour Government?” Were they to use the chance to make some sense of the party’s rural policies, they would find themselves clutching a free ticket to the hearts of Middle England.

The British countryside has never retreated faster than in the fifty years since the last time a Labour government introduced sweeping measures to protect it. At the end of the Second World War, a series of visionary schemes – planning, footpath and national park legislation – sought to protect the land that servicemen had been told they were fighting for. The laws have survived, but the circumstances they were supposed to address have changed beyond all recognition.

In 1947, farming and forestry were considered benign activities, compatible with the conservation of a diverse, intimate, engrossing countryside. So confident was the government that they would continue to enhance, rather than blemish, the places that British people held in such totemic awe, that it failed to classify them as development at all, and subjected them to no significant restraint. Since then, farming and forestry have begun to consume all that they once conserved – hedges, ponds, meadows, ancient woodlands and archaeological remains.

Nor can existing planning laws cope with the new threats posed by the 4.4 million homes the Department of the Environment says will have to be built in the next twenty years – they are incapable of ensuring that derelict sites in towns are used first. Traffic levels in some parts of the countryside, moreover, are likely to treble in the next 30 years.

These problems are noted in Labour’s position paper on the countryside, but its tentative prescriptions fall far short of confronting them. It proposes the designation of Sites of Local Importance, but reproduces the flaws in existing legislation by failing to protect them from farming and forestry. Nowhere does it mention landowners’ automatic right to blight the countryside with silos, concrete piggeries and monster chicken houses. Tony Blair says he doesn’t know how to control traffic on rural roads – perhaps no one has told him about the Road Traffic Reduction Bill.

The Labour Party has said nothing so far about introducing new planning guidance to ensure that derelict land in cities is used for affordable housing. Nor does it yet seem prepared to contemplate the massive reduction in farm subsidies which will be needed if organic farming is to compete on equal terms. The current EU panic over how US farm reforms might affect the next round of the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade presents the best chance there’s ever been.

Labour can also afford to scoff at the opposition. The Country Landowners’ Association will raise a tremendous fuss, not least because bleeding the taxpayer dry without being identified rather suits its members. At the moment it has plenty of political leverage, but only because it is effectively the rural wing of the Tory Party. Labour appears to understand this, as its firmest countryside pledge so far happens also to be the landowners’ principle cause of apoplectic gout: recognition of the right to roam on mountains, woods and moorland.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is only one rural issue which seems seriously to divide the Labour Party, and that is hunting. “Leave Country Sports Alone” – established by such Labour-voting luminaries as John Mortimer and David Puttnam, employs a singular approach to rural history to arrive at the notion that fox-hunting is the hub of rural life. But even they claim that among their principal interests are the protection of (albeit idiosyncratic) rural values and the conservation the countryside.

Labour, in other words, has nothing to lose and plenty to gain from pulling on its wellies and jumping right in. Anything less than a tectonic announcement in eleven days’ time would betray irresolution of the most gratuitous kind.