WEEKEND WEB: We must protect the countryside, not build on it

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Chairman of the Lincolnshire branch of CPRE, TIM MACHIN, writes his monthly column, RURAL MATTERS

A couple of months ago, I reported on the work that CPRE and other campaign groups were doing to influence the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove.

Mr Gove is perhaps listening and in the Telegraph last Sunday reaffirmed ‘this government has pledged that we must be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.’

The environment is an ever more complex and somewhat abstract thing which probably means different things to different people, but the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates’.

Michael Gove’s departmental website says: ‘We are the UK government department responsible for safeguarding our natural environment, supporting our world-leading food and farming industry, and sustaining a thriving rural economy.

‘Our remit means we play a major role in people’s day-to-day life, from the food we eat, and the air we breathe, to the water we drink.’

So that’s us then isn’t it? Those of us who live and work and play in the rural towns and villages of England. The Government’s stated aim is to improve what we currently have, which is good news. But (and there is always a but!) there is a battle going on in Whitehall between ministers charged with increasing the development of new homes.

The Green Belt has been under fire for years. It is the 1.6million hectares of open space around London and cities designed to contain urban sprawl and provide amenity and a better environment for city dwellers.

It is, however, nice green space on the edge of suburbia otherwise ideal for development. We don’t have any Green Belt in Lincolnshire, but where might housing policy look next if the resistance to build in the Green Belt is overcome?

National Parks, Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, Areas of Special Scientific Interest, countryside parks? Places much closer to our doorstep or where we go for our holidays, recreation or relaxation. Places which are an essential and precious part of our environment.

Lincolnshire boasts one Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Lincolnshire Wolds) and dozens of other areas of special protection, but is legislation enough to guarantee their protection?

In a report published last week CPRE shows there has been an 82 per cent increase in new housing units given planning permission in England’s 34 AONBs in the past five years, despite repeated commitments by the Government to ‘maintain national protections for AONBs for the benefit of future generations’. The report also shows the pressure is set to increase, with applications for a further 12,741 homes in AONBs currently awaiting decision.

Although AONBs have the highest level of planning protection, CPRE’s report Beauty betrayed: how reckless housing development threatens England’s AONBs shows a five-fold increase in the amount of land set to be lost under concrete.

It is of course Mr Gove’s own department that has oversight of AONBs, so we look to him to honour the commitment he made in the national press last week for the sake of OUR environment.