It has taken an unlovely trio to bring current attitudes towards the poor old British countryside into sharp and alarming focus. Donald Trump, James Packer and John Prescott are united in their view that the landscape is an expendable asset, there to be exploited like any other.
The American billionaire has bought up part of the Scottish coast for a vast golf complex. The Australian billionaire plans a polo resort in west Sussex. The Labour grandee (and now professional class warrior) has attacked those who put what he calls their “chocolate box views” before the energy needs of the country. “It’s not their back yard any more,” he has announced. “It’s ours.”
Now is a good moment to recognise that we can no longer take our rural landscape for granted. There is already huge demand for space – for houses, energy, business and leisure complexes – and, with the news that population growth is accelerating, that pressure will increase.
A basic injustice is at work here. Those with the political and financial power to decide the future of the landscape are precisely those who care least about it. Some loathe the countryside and the values it represents. It is hardly surprising, to take an obvious example, that Prescott sees rural Britain as a place of squires and chocolate box views. He is, after all, a man so averse to walking that he once took a car for a 200-yard trip to the Labour conference.
It is time for those who realise that the natural and agricultural landscapes of Britain are as important as the economic priorities of profit and growth to make themselves heard. We need to nail the lies and assumptions which have been repeated so often by interested parties in positions of power.
The countryside is a finite resource. There is a limit to how much battering it can take. Once it goes, it disappears for ever. Wildlife trusts may be able to restore patches of heathland or ancient woodland but, when the developments are man-made, those changes are irreversible. Indeed, once a landscape is scarred, the process will accelerate. Developers find it easy to persuade planning committees that more clutter on an already cluttered area will make no difference to its character.
Another dangerous supposition lies behind the phrases frequently used when a rural area is under assault. “Unremarkable countryside” is one, “an unexceptional stretch of land” another. A new orthodoxy is being revealed. Areas of outstanding beauty should be conserved for tourists and ramblers; the rest, the “unexceptional” ordinary fields, hedgerows and woods, are expendable.
Something is going seriously wrong when millions watch badgers on Autumnwatch or tut with disapproval at news of pollution and forest clearance from around the world while, at the same time, our own fragile landscape is being eroded and compromised.
The landscape matters. Places of wildness and tranquility provide sustenance to the soul. Loving a view is not a middle-class indulgence. Defending areas of local character, for the sake of future generations, is important. Do these things really need saying? Given the madness of contemporary debate about the countryside, it seems that they do.