The resulting uproar in this sleepy town of 8,000, where one-quarter of residents have signed a petition to stop the project, is but one skirmish in a nationwide battle suddenly raging over the future of rural Britain.
On one side is a national government eager to build Britain out of its economic doldrums, seeing a new wave of residential and commercial construction — even in small towns and villages — as a major weapon in its fight to halt the country’s slide into another recession.
On the other side are a host of communities and conservation groups desperate to defend a rural beauty glorified by the words of William Blake and the brush strokes of Gainsborough, and today embraced by scores of Britons as a pillar of their national identity.
“They want to pinch our green land for profit,” quipped Barbara Cornish, 70, whose quaint home, the Brambles, rests a short walk from the site of the proposed development. “Well, I tell you, we just won’t have it.”
The tug of war over development in Britain underscores the tensions erupting as cash-strapped Western governments come under increasing pressure to find creative ways to return to a now-lost cycle of economic growth.
The opening shot here was fired last summer, when Britain’s Conservative-led coalition government unveiled the most sweeping changes to national planning codes since the 1940s. The proposed rules boil down 1,000-plus pages of guidelines to just 52, aiming to jump-start construction in a country where housing starts have fallen to levels not seen since 1923.
With developers citing tough zoning codes as one reason for that decline, the proposed rules suggest that local communities should now give a default “yes” to construction projects. Critics say they also water down protections for undeveloped green spaces. In a separate move, the national government is acting to incentivize growth, literally offering to pay local communities for each house built in their districts.
The British housing industry is hailing the effort as the perfect economic pick-me-up at a time when the economy here is failing as the government slashes public-sector jobs and cuts spending as part of a national austerity drive. Proponents promise that the proposed rules will create four jobs for each house built. And unlike the overbuilt societies of the United States, Ireland and Spain, new stocks of houses, they insist, are direly needed in Britain, where a baby boom and high flows of immigration have created an estimated shortfall of 1 million homes nationwide.
“What we see is an anti-development lobby taking the opportunity to hijack a debate over planning with scaremongering messages of concreting over the countryside,” said Steve Turner of the Home Builders Federation of Britain. “They simply don’t grasp that we need new homes in places all over the country.”