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The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, my text this afternoon is taken from the very book to which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred in his opening speech--England and the Octopus. Generally speaking, we have latterly made such a mess and muddle of our urban civilisation that fewer and fewer people remain willing to put up with its unpleasantness for the sake of its cultural and social advantages. So we are now proceeding, with the same recklessness, to disperse ourselves over the countryside, destroying and dishonouring it with our shoddy but all too permanent encampments. What we must do is try to make town life not only tolerable but attractive, and also show how one may in very truth genuinely escape to live in real country without offence and trampling underfoot and annihilating the very things that are so justly desired and so valiantly sought. That seems to be a remarkably precise definition of where we are 70 years on, and points us to at least one solution; namely, that the effective regeneration of our cities is one of the best ways of protecting our countryside.
I live in a city--a very small city. I can walk from my house to the cathedral, the railway station, the shops and banks, the hospitals, the museum and the arts centre. I can walk if I want to go out for a meal in the evening. I am extremely fortunate. But many others could be equally fortunate; there is much land in the centre of Hereford which is disused or under-used--we have our own brownfield sites. Despite valiant efforts by the city council, many flats over shops and offices remain empty and unused.
And city life is threatened--even in Hereford--by noise and the fear of crime. In other places that latter problem is very much more acute. There is antisocial behaviour and drug-related violence which dominates and ruins people's lives. I have said before in this House that the reclaiming of our towns and cities for civilised and decent living can best be achieved by recreating a true sense of community. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, mentioned communities, since they are so important. That is a process in which the local Churches are often crucially and valiantly involved.
But I also live in a diocese which includes the Marches, that land in Herefordshire and Shropshire along the Welsh Border which constitutes one of only three remaining truly tranquil areas in England. I am
That is not to say that we do not need some development in rural areas. Yes indeed, we need more affordable social housing for rent in perpetuity for local people. I am glad to say that many dioceses have been able to make glebe land available for precisely those projects. We need some economic growth which provides appropriate work near to where people live to prevent unnecessary travel, preferably related to agriculture, which remains a vital industry and which is itself potentially the best guarantee of protecting our landscape.
We do not need the further provision of speculative house building, which creates more unaffordable housing and which, in parts of Herefordshire, has already grossly exceeded even future targets. I believe that rural development needs to be concentrated in our small towns and key villages, in places where the infrastructure is already present and the need is to revitalise existing communities. A good example is in the small town of Tenbury Wells in my diocese, where the rural community council is embarking on a rural challenge project to combine social and economic regeneration following the closure of the one sizeable factory in the town. It will provide community facilities, work with young people and business support. It is interesting that this debate is to be partly about the definition of terms. That is, in most people's eyes, a rural project. For us, it is a bit of urban regeneration.
Our tranquil areas, on the other hand, need very special protection from any significant encroachment of housing. They also need protection from inappropriate agricultural procedures. Farming rightly receives very generous financial support. But, except in environmentally sensitive areas, very little of that money is directed towards environmental protection and the encouragement of biodiversity. In 1995 in Herefordshire, £4.53 per hectare was available for such purposes, compared with £18.49 for socio economic purposes and no less than £90.50 per hectare for direct agricultural support, mostly for activities which have environmentally detrimental consequences.
So we need to discriminate between different kinds of rural areas, between towns and villages, where appropriate, modest development is right and proper, and the truly deep country, so rare and precious, which needs a high degree of protection from insensitive and unnecessary development.
I wish to end with one horror story, not about housing but about roads. There is a place just across the Border into Wales from where I live where two main roads intersect. It was a peaceful junction with hardly any traffic. Two years ago a roundabout was constructed and a battery of street lamps erected in this remote, dark, peaceful place. What preposterous sense of priorities in public expenditure is represented by a decision to build a redundant roundabout and erect unnecessary and unsightly street lamps when we cannot afford to mend
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to participate in a debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Marlesford. He is a friend of long standing and one whose concern about the sensible protection of the countryside I have known for many years. But that personal thought apart, the debate is extremely timely. It seems to me that Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, who have now been in office for nine months, cannot continue to try to look two ways at once. They cannot continue to assure us on the one hand of their deep concern about green issues and on the other to issue edicts about more houses in the countryside.
If noble Lords will permit me to waft them from the see or diocese of Hereford 150 miles south to West Sussex, perhaps I may explain to your Lordships how West Sussex is a perfect example of the paradox there seems to be in the minds of Ministers at the Department of the Environment at the moment.
It may surprise your Lordships to know that more than 50 per cent. of West Sussex lies within three areas of outstanding natural beauty: the Sussex Downs, the High Weald and Chichester Harbour. The county council recently produced a draft structure plan under which it provided for an additional 37,900 homes to be built in the county by the year 2011, one quarter on greenfield sites. This plan was the subject of a rigorous examination in public conducted by an independent panel appointed by the Secretary of State. My noble friend Lord Marlesford referred briefly to the problems of West Sussex. The panel recommended no change in the housing figures proposed in the draft plan.
However, the Secretary of State has now issued a direction requiring the plan to be modified and the housing figure increased by 12,800, on top of the 37,900 already provided for in the plan. He described the approach adopted by the council and supported by the independent panel and by the Royal Town Planning Institute as "flawed".
At the same time, the same department and more or less the same Ministers have instructed the Countryside Commission to start two inquiries: one into areas of outstanding natural beauty as a whole--all 31 of them--and the other more specifically into the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. Here I declare an interest as chairman of the board.
Of course, we are delighted to take part in the consultation exercises, but the underlying expectation from the public who have been consulted is that as a result they will not get 12,900 more houses; they expect to get more protection of their loved countryside, more security, more permanence, more security of the funding. In the case of the Sussex Downs there is a real danger. We are a strip of about 80 miles stretching from Winchester to Eastbourne. It may surprise your Lordships to know that 1 million people could walk to and from their homes to the centre of the Sussex Downs
If we look at old prints and drawings of the south coast and the south-east coast, we will notice that over the years the urban fringe along the south coast has expanded regularly northwards--it cannot go in any other direction--at the rate of one mile every 50 years. As the average depth of the Sussex Downs is four miles above the urban fringe, it is not difficult to calculate that in 200 years, at the present rate the whole of the Sussex Downs will be covered in concrete.
I say to the noble Baroness who will respond to the debate that the time has surely come when the department must cease trying to look both ways at once. The two themes are just not consistent. The Government must either abandon their green ambitions--I very much hope they do not--or they must move away from "predict and provide" to a very much more realistic assessment of the amount of housing in the countryside that is environmentally possible. As my noble friend Lord Marlesford said, that means looking for some massive scale alternatives in the development of brownfield sites and urban regeneration.
It will require a huge step of imaginative planning. It has been done in the States, in Boston and around Grand Central Station in New York. But there has to be affordable and social housing attached to it. If that is not done, I fear that we are now wreaking dangers to the countryside that our successors in 25 or 50 years' time will very much regret. They will think: "Why on earth didn't we see the dangers?".
There are two comforting phrases which are rather like the reform of the CAP, two mantras that we all say: environmental protection on one side, urban regeneration on the other. But I say to your Lordships that those phrases soothe our consciences but the words are not enough. We must now have action. I very much hope that in winding up the debate the noble Baroness will tell us something of the department's plans for action.
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