A battle for rural Britain

Anthony Faiola/The Washington Post - The rolling hills of Great Cornard, England, immortalized by the painter Thomas Gainsborough, are where one developer wants a new U.S.-style subdivision of 170 homes.

GREAT CORNARD, England — In this graceful patch of the British countryside, a lush glade gives way to a horizon of rolling hills immortalized by the painter Thomas Gainsborough in his 18th-century masterpiece “Cornard Wood.”

Loved by locals for horseback riding and rambling walks, this picturesque setting, one British builder now thinks, is also ideal for something else — a new U.S.-style subdivision of 170 tract houses.

(Anthony Faiola/WASHINGTON POST) - The development site for 170 homes in Great Cornard, England.

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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.”

Yet the government and its allies appear to have grossly miscalculated the public reaction to the plan. Critics say it risks the eruption of unchecked, Los Angeles-like urban sprawl in cities such as London. Some also cite economic concerns that the government may be laying the groundwork for a short-term, U.S.-style housing boom that will only go bust as builders find that many prospective buyers are shut out of the market because of tightened mortgage lending rules.

But by far the biggest outcry has been over the implications of encouraging development in England’s picture-perfect countryside.

The blistering criticism is coming not only from liberal-leaning environmental groups but also the touchstones of British conservative thought, including the Telegraph newspaper, which unleashed a scathing series of stories titled “Hands Off Our Land.”

Prince William, the second in line to the British throne, appeared in a YouTube video this month extolling the virtues of countryside preservation. The National Trust, one of Europe’s most influential nonprofit conservation bodies, has bitterly opposed the plan, as has the influential Campaign to Protect Rural England.

“This is a densely populated country, and the people of Britain are deeply connected to every square inch of our landscape,” said Ian Wilson, head of government affairs at the National Trust. “Now there are people in government who are trying to use the planning system to stimulate economic growth, and we think that’s very wrong. You cannot put a monetary value on everything.”

The changes, set to come into effect as early as this year after a period of open debate, would have their most direct influence in villages and towns with outdated planning codes.

As the debate reached a fever pitch this month, Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in, promising opponents that the government still intends to protect beautiful rural landscapes. But he also warned that extraordinary measures are needed to get the country growing again.

“To those who just oppose everything we’re doing, my message is this: Take your arguments down to the job center,” Cameron said. “We’ve got to get Britain back to work.”

That stance has left rural activists across Britain fearing that the guidelines will give fresh momentum to pending and controversial construction projects, including one that could see houses built in woodlands once considered part of the storied Sherwood Forest. In Kingswood, a tiny village in southwest England, residents who worry that the guidelines would be used to approve houses on a site that might harbor Roman ruins recently protested by dressing the local children up in togas.

Here in Great Cornard, a local citizens group is on a crusade against the 170 houses proposed on what are now cozy fields of wheat that buffer the woodlands above from encroaching development below.

They concede that a measure of the area’s rural character has already been lost to growth in recent years, as this community, an hour and 20 minutes by train from central London, has become a favorite among city commuters seeking more space. But the small town, a short drive from Gainsborough’s birthplace, still has its village lore. The local children, for instance, continue to tell stories about the mystical fairies said to live in the canopy of trees by the woodland’s edge.

“But by forcing growth, we lose that character that makes us special,” said Michael Evans, 68, grounds manager of a 13th-century estate nestled high above the proposed housing development. “We’re not against economic growth; we, in fact, want it. But we are against economic growth and development in the wrong places.”

 
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