A new plot for The Archers - housing as the latest crop
For a business that only contributes half as much to gross domestic product as the sale of ready-made sandwiches, and gets half its income from taxpayers in the form of grants, farming can certainly whip up a storm of indignation. Just mention the idea of building a million houses in the South East on agricultural land and the 'conservative tendency' can mobilise a whole army of objections. The reason of course boils down to land use and the economic consequences of changes in it. What with European boycotts, the high pound and the collapse of farm produce prices worldwide, farmers may be on their beam ends, but they still own plenty of land: the commodity of which it has been famously said that they don't make any more.
The problem with farm land is that under present conditions it is not a convertible currency. Only those privy to the dubious manipulations of local authorities and their planning departments really know how dribbles of agricultural and green-belt land continue to reach the housing market in quantities guaranteed to make local fortunes whilst still propping up outrageous house prices, but ever since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act it is these transactions and not the farcical camaraderie of fox hunting that have constituted the glue of rural life. Every planning decision that creates building land makes a fortune for somebody, and it is because rural landowners, including local authorities, have for 50 years presided over the cash cow created by planning that the disappearance of shops, pubs, schools, railway stations, buses and every other kind of traditional rural service has been accepted with equanimity.
But now a crisis has been reached. The predicted population growth of the South East of England over the next 20 years, is so vast that the drip-feed approach to the supply side of building land in the countryside threatens to be totally overwhelmed by the imminent and urgent need for over a million new houses.
Oddly enough it is difficult to say who approves or disapproves of this situation. Certainly Old Labour would have gone for New Towns, but New Labour is not so sure. Old Tories (who used to control most of the wealthier farming areas) would go for the million houses anyway, cramming them into rural areas, rubbing their hands at even higher land prices. New Tories are not so sure.
Enter the Middle Way. Now, by means of a leaked document, the government has indicated that, given the bountiful state of the international market in agricultural produce, it might consider removing legislative protection from up to one third of the agricultural land in England. This would create a building-land bonanza that would overwhelm the old drip-feed game in a different way, with an oversupply of land pushing land and house prices down.
Disappointingly this excellent piece of lateral thinking has had a very mixed reception. While cash-strapped farmers have held their breath, unable to believe their possible good fortune, the 'conservative tendency' in all political parties has denounced the whole idea as a blueprint for the destruction of the countryside, and local authorities in the affected areas have dismissed it as 'sheer madness'.
This is a pity, for it is high-density housing estates in overstuffed 'villages' that ruins the countryside, not low-density, skillfully sited and landscaped hamlets and isolated houses, able to maximise the design advantages of orientation, shelter and topography in a way that has not been possible for fifty years.
Let the government have its way with its nightmarish pedestrianised 24- hour cities. All it needs to do with the countryside is to impose very low density limits and let the £3.5 billion farming industry grow houses for the £450 billion housing market.