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WMN opinion: Right debate, minister - but not the right solution

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 29, 2012

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Two cheers for planning Minister Nick Boles in saying what, for a Conservative, is almost unsayable in polite rural company; namely that if we want more homes in Britain we are going to have to build more houses and many will have to be on green fields.

But only two cheers, not three, because in his enthusiasm he will have alienated a large number of conservative – with a small ‘c’ – country dwellers who largely accept the well-made points about the need for better quality, more attractive homes that fit into their landscape but who want stronger assurances about precisely where they will – and will not – be built.

As the National Trust pointed out in responding to Mr Boles’ comments yesterday, adding 3% to the amount of land covered by buildings will mean creating an urban expanse roughly the size of Cornwall. That is a sobering – not to say alarming – thought for anyone who cherishes the British countryside.

Mr Boles was quite specific that the greenbelt needed protecting – but that will only add to alarm in rural shires like Devon and Cornwall. Greenbelt is the guaranteed open space that separates large conurbations in the South East, the Midlands and parts of the North from sprawling.

In the South West we don’t have greenbelt, we have farmland, forest, moorland and coastline. A great deal of that is precious to a great many people. Building over it in what many fear will be a less rigidly controlled way than is the case at the moment is something already causing widespread concern among conservation bodies.

On the plus side, however, this is an issue that cannot be ducked. There is a crisis in the availability of homes. However much we blame second homes, the only solution will come from building more property. The Western Morning News has consistently argued developing existing communities is better than concreting over swathes of farmland – that we need for food production – or ruining beautiful landscapes that are one of our region’s, and indeed our nation’s, greatest assets. That said, with 91% of the British land mass still officially countryside, building on a little bit more of it, though not the full 3% Mr Boles is suggesting, ought to be possible.

It would not be acceptable if that new building went ahead without proper local consultation and the rigid application of the planning rules. But, it is now clear, at some point the bullet will have to be bitten. If Mr Boles has pulled the trigger on the starting gun for a serious debate about this issue, he has done us all a service.

Minimum alcohol pricing is going to be of questionable value in tackling the drinking problems that exist in parts of our society. And alcohol consumption has been falling slightly in recent years. What’s less in doubt, however, is the impact that putting up the price of farmhouse cider will have on Westcountry producers. Very bad news.

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