Development Control: the musical

Driving to a tedious meeting about planning applications today The Ranger pumped up the stereo, and up popped one of his old favourites, (Nothing But) Flowers by Talking Heads, from their 1988 album Naked.

In a moment of epiphany, he realised that this old foot-tappin’ tune was in fact all about the Town and Country Planning Acts, or at least whatever passes for that in America. It seemed almost unbelievable, but could he have stumbled upon the only known example of a song about planning? The lyrics, in typical Talking heads fashion, are a little enigmatic, and subject to a number of interpretations.

…Once there were parking lots Now it’s a peaceful oasis you got it, you got it This was a Pizza Hut Now it’s all covered with daisies you got it, you got it I miss the honky tonks, Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens you got it, you got it And as things fell apart Nobody paid much attention you got it, you got it…

Clearly a musical discussion of the merits of greenfield sites versus light industrial (B1) and retail (A1 and A3) usage. On the face of it, it’s a simple song in praise of modern civilisation and the developments that have raised us from our agricultural ancestors. One reviewer who took this view said

It’s denouncing the “hippy” or nature freak lifestyle. Sounds great at first, but you end up missing the creature comforts…

It doesn’t take too much further analysis to realise that this is probably not the song’s true message. What that is, is less clear. Is it suggesting that we should go back to a natural way of living? Is it pointing out the folly of looking back nostalgically at a mythical bucolic past? Or does it just invite us to reflect on what we have given up, and what we have gained in return? Probably some of all these things and more. The insight that The Ranger had on the road to Cowes today, whilst singing along lustily, was that (Nothing But) Flowers could be seen as a satire on the faux-rustic trappings we like to adorn our high-tech lives with. Perhaps it’s appropriate that it takes a Virtual Ranger to notice this. Do this exercise if you want to understand. Swap all the ‘urban’ sentiments with ‘rural’ ones and vice versa; and you get a very unoriginal country ballad bemoaning the loss of the countryside and the encroachment of the urban sprawl. David Byrne sings “[when] I was an angry young man/ I’d pretend/ That I was a billboard/ Standing tall/ By the side of the road/ I fell in love/ With a beautiful highway…“. Surely he is parodying the way a child might pretend to be a tree, and fall in love with the countryside? When applied in that more usual way these sentiments seem utterly unremarkable to us. Remarking ‘I remember when all this was fields‘ has become a jocular indicator of rambling reminiscences, so commonplace is that feeling. But what if things were reversed? What if there were no more urban sprawl and roadside takeaways? Would we miss them? What would our reminiscences sound like then? Perhaps (Nothing But) Flowers is trying to show us.

Natural England to recommend right of access to England’s coast… and pay for it?

It seems remarkable, but just a short while after the end of the seemingly interminable hurly-burly of creating the open access land facilitated by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, Natural England are sticking their heads well and truly above the parapet and recommending that the government

…provide Natural England with the powers to deliver a new right of access to the coast… to create clear and well managed public access along the entire 4000 km length of England’s coast.

This is powerful stuff. The so called ‘right to roam’ proposals stirred up a frenzy of complaining landowners, some with very valid objections. The final legislation, after considerable amendment, fell short of the sweeping rights that were originally envisaged. The introduction of the new rights of access have not led to the predicted catastrophes, either, so perhaps the final result was a good one.

A footpath sign

Continue reading Natural England to recommend right of access to England’s coast… and pay for it?

Barker planning review: wildlife safe in our hands..?

Readers will not need The Ranger to draw their attention to the radical proposals made via HM Treasury in the Barker review of the planning system. The Guardian explains:

Under proposals put forward by the economist Kate Barker, planning permission will be easier to obtain for new airports, supermarkets and other large developments. Ms Barker, a member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee, was commissioned by the Treasury to look at ways of reforming the planning system to help tackle housing shortages and promote economic growth.

Previously, this sort of research – if not this sort of result – might have been expected from the erstwhile Department of the Environment, Transport and The Regions (DETR). It is not news that for many years the Treasury has been itching to get around those pesky environmentalists, who have been sheltering behind John Prescott’s considerable bulk.

Barker Review of Land Use Planning

Now that Mr Prescott is driving off towards the sunset, Mr Brown is stepping forward. DETR is no more and it’s no great surprise that this report arrives as soon as it does, and that it recommends resolving the perceived conflict between developers and environmentalists in such a pointed way. If development is being thwarted by environmental constraints, Barker seems to argue that the way to resolve the conflict is simply to ease those constraints. Maybe it really is that simple. The Ranger, fresh from several years working in a planning authority and with experience of numerous planning applications constrained by environmental concerns, does not think so. Good development can be achieved, often to the benefit of biodiversity and landscape. Environmental constraints are one way to help this happen, not to hinder it. But just as there are some developments that are of over-riding importance, there are also some habitats and species of over-riding importance, and they need to be conserved. In this context we need to accept that for some proposed developments, no means no – it does not mean that we should rewrite the rules until we get the answer we want. On another point, if the desired end result is good and sustainable decision-making, there is a need for local concerns to be given more consideration, preferably in advance of application, rather than the contrary. Taking power over their local environment away from people is rarely a popular or successful move in the long term, because they will not endorse the decisions taken. Interestingly, there was an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned for the review. It stated that 71 per cent of respondents said land with important or endangered wildlife should be safeguarded. Land with scenic value came second with 54 per cent, and green spaces in towns and cities third with 47 per cent. The RSPB interpreted this, rather optimistically as “Barker planning review backs safeguards for wildlife sites“. Simon Marsh, Head of Planning and Regional Policy at the RSPB said:

People believe that wildlife is important both in the countryside and in towns and cities. Kate Barker has accepted that environmentally important land should be properly protected and that designated land, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protection Areas, do this extremely well.

The Ranger is concerned about this interpretation, too, for a simple reason. Environmentally important land is not the same thing as designated land. Designated areas are not enough. Wildlife and landscape exists everywhere, and it must be conserved and enhanced everywhere – yes, even in the most intensive developments. Consigning it to protected areas is ultimately to divorce us from it, and to lose it. Working on the Isle of Wight brings some unusual insights into land management and designations. In particular, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The designation is scattered, almost at random, across the Island. It is universally acknowledged that a few areas within the AONB are not worthy of the designation, and that many outside it are worthy. So in some ways the boundary of the designation acts as a hindrance rather than help, insofar as those area outside of the AONB are concerned. But in over 40 years since it was designated nobody has dared realign the boundary, nor are they ever likely to do so because of the huge complexity and controversy involved in doing so. And a lot has changed in 40 years.

St Helen's, Isle of Wight

Not in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Designations of all sorts, as Barker well understands, by themselves are simply not flexible enough to respond to the wider needs of today’s society, either to allow development or to conserve and enhance biodiversity. The RSPB and Kate Barker are right to point out that the existing protected landscape and habitat system works well – it does, up to a point. But the designated areas can be only a part of the answer, never the whole thing. If everything outside of that system is to be sacrificial we shall lose far more than we have ever managed to conserve.

Daft reasons to fell trees

The Ranger gets to hear some pretty feeble reasons for felling trees in his job – usually along the lines of ‘it spoils my sea view‘. Just ocassionally a more creative one slips through the net, but recently, Copeland Borough Council in Cumbria had a corker from the lips of Cllr Mr Gilbert Scurrah (pictured), the Conservative member for Millom Without.

Cllr Mr Gilbert Scurrah

Mr Scurrah produced this remarkable argument during a planning meeting when Copeland Borough Council approved plans for eight new sheltered homes to be built, at the cost of 16 mature trees used by nesting birds. He said:

“With avian flu, we should be having them out.”

This is exactly the kind of over-reaction that could really mean that bird flu causes serious problems even if it never arrives here. It might be expected that people in Cumbria – seriously affected by the foot-and-mouth crisis, but equally seriously affected by the catastrophic decline in tourism that year – would be the first to realise that irrational scare stories are almost as serious a threat to the rural landscape as is the deadly virus itself. Felling trees to avoid bird flu is just silly. No, worse – it’s dangerous and wrong, because it sends out a flawed message, and one which could have serious consequences. Perhaps Cllr Mr Scurrah meant his comments in jest. The Ranger has sat through one or two planning meetings in his time and he knows that an injection of levity is rarely unwelcome. But there are jokes, and there is foolishness.