Forget the cities - our country paradise is ripe for development
So now it has happened, entirely as predicted in this column years ago. The super-high-density city proving unpopular - as well as horrendously expensive and as unwieldy as a juggernaut to steer through the planning process - we have reverted to nibbling away at the Green Belt. And so 'protecting the countryside' retreats from being an inviolable principle to an empty slogan backed up by newspaper stories about outraged or distraught country-dwellers gazing out for the last time over green fields they thought they possessed forever.
The scene is affecting, so much so that it would deserve a prize for tragedy, were it not in line for an even better one for farce. The high-density urbanised-rural 'million new homes to be crammed into the South East', about which there has been such a long-standing furore, represents the absolute minimum of greenfield land and the absolute maximum of transplanted urban density. In all but name these houses will be urban houses, high-density low-rise 'millennium' dwellings designed to 'wean people away from their cars' - an absurd ambition for any rural area - and pig-pile them into dependence on a public transport network that does not yet exist.
The media take an ambivalent view of all this. 'Key workers' must, of course, be found homes but on the other hand crocodile tears must be shed over the 'fears' of environmental groups about new runways, airports and other evidence of economic life in addition to housing. It is a commentary on our strange value system that building houses in the Green Belt is seen as an 'intrusive' and 'inappropriate' activity in the non-urban South East, where there is room for at least three million dwellings at densities as low as the Australian outback. Yet it is one that would be 'welcomed' anywhere in Greater London, where there is scarcely room to run a bus, let alone boast about a pie-in-the-sky public transport system.
The reason for this anomaly is a mixture of abstract classification and political spin. Hypnotised by the glitz of the Urban Task Force celebrity floor show, today's planners refuse to pay attention to the enormously increased quantity of surplus agricultural land available for low-density development on the market as a result of the globalisation of the food industry. For them there is still only brownfield land, Green Belt land and 'countryside' - the last an ill-defined, but hotly defended, paradise that only Genghis Khan (or a farmer) would be so insensitive as to consider selling off for such an unexotic purpose as development.
It is the anomalous state of the countryside - sacrosanct but also redundant and, thus far, Brusselswise, administratively unclaimed - that focuses attention on the wholly inadequate development prospects offered by patchy brownfields and marginal Green Belts, wherever they may be. Conversely, it is the lack of contact between politicians and land-use issues - without foot and mouth disease, approximately nil contact - that shows us the truce between agriculture and environmental stewardship will not last forever.
In any case, bidders other than housebuilders are not so reticent.
The burgeoning Nature Conservancy movement has long been eager to take over the grants and the mystique that were for many years the source of farming wealth. And even thinner bones are being squabbled over. The Council for British Archaeology has made a pitch for 'entirely non-renewable' resources in the shape of unexcavated prehistoric sites hitherto 'lost to posterity under the plough', but now, 'within the current rethink of agri-environment funding', enjoying an important opportunity. An opportunity, hopefully, to insert lowdensity rural development into the real countryside - the richest, most bountiful, plentiful and suitable source of building land on these islands.