Growth plan must respect Britain’s protected landscapes

“Undeveloped and under-developed areas” are suitable for investment zones bids, no caveats -Owl

Julian Glover

The Lake District, William Wordsworth wrote in 1810, should be “a sort of national property”, a place for everyone who has an “eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”. In that phrase lies the origin of something precious: an understanding that the countryside enhances the common good. We look after it to make our lives — and those that come after — richer, deeper, happier and healthier.

So “horror” is not too strong a word to describe the prospect of England’s national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) falling prey to investment zones, thinly thought-through wheezes to get things built in what government describes menacingly as “undeveloped and under-developed areas”.

Of course, if you want to see it that way, the peat bogs of Dartmoor are badly undeveloped; the summit of Helvellyn is notably lacking useful housing and car parks; and there would surely be room for profitable industrial warehousing in the New Forest, if only someone could remove pesky rules holding such things back.

It sounds absurd. But might it happen? On Sunday, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities issued rules for its light-touch investment zones intended to “drive growth and unlock housing”. Far from exempting national parks or AONBs, the green belt or sites of special scientific interest, it asks applicants to note simply “whether the proposed development would be on land” that includes them. A hasty tweet followed from the minister, Simon Clarke. He said — heaven forbid! — investment zones would “categorically” not be happening in national parks. But policymaking by social media is not the same as a guarantee to parliament. The formal guidance has not changed and he did not rule out, by accident, ignorance or intent, other protected areas, including AONBs.

The thrust of this government is that rules of all sorts get in the way of pouring concrete. We are not wrong to be scared.

If the problem is confusion, it should be straightforward for Clarke and the new Defra secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, to clear it up. They should make it clear they will respect landscape, heritage and environmental protections set out in law. Many of these laws were passed by Conservative governments under Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson, neither known for their addiction to red tape.

The new Environment Act sets clear targets for natural recovery. The government’s response to the recent landscapes review promised to “leave our protected landscapes in a better condition for future generations”. This is radicalism of the right kind.