Brexit & The Very English Countryside

BY LAURENCE FITZGERALD

As I write, the view from the window is simply stunning. Garden gives on to meadow then woodland upon which perch a loose nest of cottages sprawled up the saddleback of Holcombe hill, which then finally succumb to the wild moorlands of the West Pennines. Sadly, all this will eventually disappear.

Since everyone lost the ‘Brexit election’ – Brexit is now at risk, the anti-democrats are back pushing for a ‘soft Brexit’ which really means no Brexit which means our countryside is in danger – one naturally follows the other, you’ll have to trust me on this.  While I don’t claim to be an expert on matters of the country, like some of our more informed writers on CSM or indeed housing planning, I do know this: the more people you let in, the more houses you need to build, the more green space you’ll eventually have to bulldoze. Sometimes this can feel like banging your head against a brick wall. Yet to merely suggest this, for example at one of my increasingly diminishing dinner parties, is a step too far – I might as well have placed a Papiermâché of Adolf Hitler on my mantelpiece and lit candles around it.

Yet, having lived in the countryside around Bury, Greater Manchester, now for over four months – I can tell you the people aren’t happy. Coincidentally just today, I learned from a fellow dog walker that the privately owned park (which fronts that amazing view I just described) could possibly be sold off for housing development – that’s why they haven’t been cutting the grass, she told me. Yep, now it all makes sense. Not only that but possibly the green areas around the golf course too, it’ll be horrible, she said; horrible doesn’t cover it, profane is more suited.

All across this ‘green and pleasant land’ residents like my fellow dog walker are furious at the planned developments on their precious greenbelt (the most dramatic threat is around Manchester which must take 50,000 new homes); various Facebook groups, blogs, organisations, protests movements have sprung up as people vent their indignation.

For instance, without boring you with endless stats, according to the House of Commons library the number of homes granted planning permission annually in greenbelt rose five fold from 2,258 in 2009-10 to 11,977 in 2014-15 and the net loss of green belt between 2004 and 2014-15 amounts to 103,000 acres. And so the natural party of the countryside made a pledge in their 2015 Manifesto not to play Lego on the green bits, further reinforced by a recent White Paper; but they do, it must be said, have a habit of volte-face that’d make a wind-up toy appear consistent.

‘We desperately need to build around between 250,000 – 300,000 homes a year, one every tenth of a millisecond otherwise we’re all screwed’ they yell, yet make no mention of the fact that current net immigration levels have been running at roughly that figure for years. It’s not rocket science is it? Or maybe it is, again, everybody repeat: the more people you let in, the more houses, the more green space you’ll bulldoze (and if we’re honest Brexit was mainly a cry to reduce immigration – whether from inside or outside the EU).

Besides, it doesn’t take much of a push to see all this in the current political climate, this struggle of us vs. them – this war of plurality: the young vs. the old; ‘the tolerant vs. the bigoted’; soft vs. hard; Lily Allen vs. sanity, from which countryside vs. urban is but one skirmish.

I’m often quizzed by urbanites about why exactly I live where I do (value for money and lack of housing plays a part) and I suspect that certain urban elites resent the country and view it with suspicion. A narrative of England that’s lost familiarity: quaint English pubs – dogs allowed for necessity rather than trendy posturing; ringing church bells; homogeneous communities; real markets rather than those silly over-priced multicultural fares; social conservatism and a good slap of common sense.

And so common sense dictates that the beauty of the English countryside remains one of England’s greatest assets and so probably worth saving. This idea of organised lanes and hedgerows centred around a church and village pub – the nostalgic vision depicted by Constable.

But that’s not to say that a ‘hard Brexit’ and, presumably, a reduction in net immigration will totally save the countryside. There are of course other factors at play, not least house prices, occupancy rates and this insatiable national greed of wanting more, this need for a just a bigger better house – more room to stuff more crap in. But if the countryside must take its fair share of massive population growth, which comes solely from immigration, then surely Brexit will go a long way in addressing this.

Laurence is a writer, originally from Burnley. He blogs here about society, politics, food, culture and writes for a variety of publications. He has travelled extensively in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America. He lives in Manchester with a King Charles Spaniel called Winston.

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