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Nick Herbert: What future for the Countryside?

I'm very grateful to the CPRE, both here in Kent and nationally, for giving me the opportunity to talk to you today about the countryside.

It's a subject about which I feel deeply, even passionately.  I was brought up in the countryside.  My grandfather farmed in East Sussex.  I have spent much of my working life defending rural communities and helped to form the Countryside Movement.  I am privileged to represent a beautiful rural constituency, Arundel & South Downs.

I have always felt the deepest connection with the countryside.  And I know that I am not alone.  There are literally millions of people, members of your organisation and others, for whom the English landscape and the natural world is intensely special.  Indeed, our feeling for the countryside reaches into our national identity in a way that is more real and profound than any synthetic Britishness that politicians have tried to manufacture. 

From Keats' evocation of the 'stubble-plains' and 'river-sallows' of autumn to Vaughn Williams' meditations in his Fantasia; from Constable's great pastoral landscapes to Hardy's 'realistic dream country' of rural Wessex, our landscape has inspired our artists to expressions of natural beauty which speak to what it is to be English.
 
Like 'La France Profonde', Deep England draws on a connection with the natural world which is almost spiritual.  It is a pity that when visitors to our country see this link so clearly, instantly identifying our natural heritage as an integral part of national culture and identity, we are ourselves so slow to appreciate it.  And it is this failure to value our countryside that I want to examine today.  Why, when this 'earth of majesty' is so special to us, have we so damaged it?  Why haven't we valued the countryside more?

I'm going to set out the key challenges that I believe face the countryside and the action we should take to protect it for future generations.  I will argue that to meet contemporary challenges we need to embrace new thinking which focuses more on encouraging sustainable behaviour.  And I will end with a note of optimism, because I believe that the countryside can play a positive role in helping to secure our well-being in the future.

On a wall in my family's house hangs a print of Essex taken from Thomas Moule's county maps of England from 1830.  My father gazes at it wistfully every day, imagining away the relentless suburbanisation of his county, unmetalling the roads and blowing up the airports.  I've inherited from him a yearning for an historic rural tranquility and the risky belief for a modern politician that God made the country and man made the town.

Moule describes Kent as a 'happy mixture of hill and vale, arable and pasture, equal in pleasantness, and variety of products, to any part of England'.  By the early nineteenth century two railway lines have already invaded this pastoral idyll - no doubt causing enormous local controversy - but there are no major roads as we would know them today.  The population of the county then was just over half a million. 

Today, there are three times as many people living in Kent, which is the most densely populated county in the UK.  The most rapid expansion almost certainly took place in suburbanisation of the inter-war years.  Between 1920 and 1940, no fewer than 4 million houses were built.  The annual loss of over 25,000 hectares in every year of the 1930s has never been matched since.  It is no surprise that the CPRE was born in 1926.

I would like to pay tribute to the work of the CPRE, both its national and local organisations.  I know from my own area how valuable your work is, providing the vigilance and grass-roots activism to guard against damage to our countryside.  And I know from my meetings with CPRE's national team how much you do to keep these issues firmly on the political agenda.

CPRE may have born in the midst of a real threat to the British countryside.  But we haven't lost everything.  Fly over Kent on a clear day and you will still see the garden of England - the North Downs, the farms and woodlands on the Weald, the Romney Marsh, the white cliffs of course.  The Town & Country Planning Act of 1947 and green belt protection did much to arrest sprawling development.  70 per cent per cent of Kent is still farm or woodland.

<h2>Challenges</h2>

But more than sixty years after the Act, our countryside faces a new set of challenges which are coinciding to create serious problems.  The challenges posed by development, the need to produce more food and the threat of climate change must be dealt with holistically if we are to protect and ultimately enhance our landscape.

<h2>Development</h2>

The first challenge to the countryside comes from increased development driven by a population that is both growing and living longer.

The Office for National Statistics has estimated that by 2033 the UK population will have risen to over 71 million.  Projections by the Department for Communities and Local Government for the number of households in England have estimated that there will be an increase of about a quarter of a million additional households a year until 2031.  The South East's portion of this comes to nearly 40,000 a year.
 
Here in Kent, the South East Plan - which dictates that over 650,000 homes should be built in the region over the next two decades - has set a requrement of over 100,000 new houses for the two regions of East Kent and Ashford and Kent Thames Gateway.

Building housing numbers on this scale requires the development of greenfield land.  The loss of Green Belt is happening at an alarming rate.  Over 1,100 hectares of Green Belt have been lost each year since 1997 and at least 45,000 homes have been built on Green Belt land.  Unless policy changes, which it must, this situation is likely to get worse.  Evidence from the CPRE indicates that a further quarter of a million homes could be built in the Green Belt by 2026.  This is land which is meant to be protected, but currently isn't being.  And the same is true for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Quite apart from the damage to our countryside, excessive development places huge pressure on natural resources like water.  It increases light pollution and the production of waste which is currently being disposed of in environmentally damaging ways, such as landfill.  In short, these housing numbers or the South East are simply unsustainable.

<h2>Climate Change</h2>

The second key challenge to the countryside is climate change, which threatens our landscape and wildlfife due to rising sea levels and increased temperatures.

In June, Defra published the latest climate change projections, which laid bare the scale of the challenge before us.   The document estimated that the number of homes at risk of flooding is likely to double to about 800,000 within 25 years because of rising sea levels.  And average summer temperatures in the South of England will rise by 2 degrees celsius by the 2040s and up to 6.4 degrees by 2080, with London reaching a scorching 41 degrees by 2080.

Our biodiversity is in decline. . Birds such as the cuckoo or swift have shown significant decline in recent years, while other species have been lost altogether.  The Government is set to miss its own 2010 target, which Ministers have now all but abandoned.  

Water is becoming increasingly scarce.  Last week, I visited a restoration project run by WWF at Itchen Stoke Mill, part of an initiative to highlight the importance of preserving the nation's rivers.  Chalk streams such as the Itchen or the Nailbourne here in Kent are an extremely important part of our landscape and natural heritage, and can only be found in England, as well as parts of Northern France.

But these rivers face considerable challenges.  By 2020, demand for water could increase by 5 per cent - an extra 800 million litres a day.  And climate change scenarios predict that by 2050 there could be a 15 per cent reduction in total annual river flow in England and Wales.

But it's not just climate change that presents our landscape with challenges: the way we respond to climate change must also be carefully considered. . In order to meet the EU's target of 15 per cent of our energy being generated from renewable sources by 2020, which we must, we will need to increase the amount of energy we generate from sources such as solar, tidal wind and waste.  New energy sources are vital if we are to mitigate the threat of damaging climate change.  But we have to accommodate them in a way which is in itself not damaging to the environment.

<h2>Food and Farming</h2>

Related to the climate change challenge is the need to maintain a sustainable farming industry.  A CPRE meeting in the 1970s might have lamented the rise of factory farming and the removal of trees and hedgerows through the industrialisation of agriculture.  Farming itself, or at least the wrong kind of farming, was sometimes seen as a threat to the landscape.  From wartime food shortages, we dug for victory, produced 'food from our own resources' (to use the title of the 1970s White Paper) and then lamented the environmental damage and surpluses that resulted. 

Today, a new focus on environmental stewardship in farming is reversing much of this damage.  And in contrast to the decades where we worried about food mountains, the concern now is about food shortages.  The world's population is projected to rise from 6 to 9 billion by 2050, and the UN estimates that global food production will need to rise by 70 per cent in comparison to today's levels.

This means that it should be a strategic priority of Government to increase domestic food production in order to safeguard our food security rather than just to rely on imports.  But until very recently, it was the Government's formal position that it didn't matter where our food came from.  Not surprisingly, under Labour the UK's self-sufficiency in indigenous food has fallen from 82 per cent in 1998 to 73 per cent in 2008.

We need to reverse this trend and produce more food that we could and should be growing ourselves.  But we need to do so in a sustainable manner which conserves, rather than depletes, natural resources such as soil and water.  Reducing reliance on imports cannot be seen as a green light for the re-intensification of agriculture.  It is our natural environment, after all, upon which our food security depends - clean water, healthy soils, and a thriving biodiversity.

Achieving the right balance between food production and protection of the environment will be absolutely key for the future.  When 70 per cent of the nation's land is farmed, it is the signals sent by our agricultural policy which will determine the quality of much of our countryside. 

<h2>Meeting the challenges </h2>

The pressures of development, climate change and the sustainable use of natural resources present real challenges over how we will manage the countryside and enhance biodiversity in future.  But with these new demands comes the opportunity for new thinking. I've set up a new initiative, Future Countryside, as a non-partisan forum where this debate can take place.  I'm delighted that Shaun Spiers, CPRE's Chief Executive, was an early contributor to Future Countryside.  And it's encouraging that some really interesting new ideas are being generated.   

<h2>Top down government</h2>

When we see the threats to countryside, our instincts can often be to demand that government acts to prevent them.  But government itself can be part of the problem. 

The South East plan, which demands 650,000 new homes over the next twenty years, is a direct result of a command a control obsessed Government which doesn't trust local people.  Regional Spatial Strategies, drawn up by unelected bureaucrats, impose individual house-building targets on every local authority, which must then be included in councils' local development plans.

We've also seen this approach in relation to eco-towns which have been used as an opportunity to bypass planning laws and dump development on a landscape whose natural infrastructure is not suitable.

As we've argued in our 'Control Shift' green paper on planning, we think that these decisions should be taken by locally elected people who are trusted to make the right decisions in the best interests of their communities.  So we will abolish regional planning and revoke all regional spatial strategies, including regional building targets, whilst national planning guidance will continue to provide the context for this locally-led planning system.

We are also committed to abolishing the Infrastructure Planning Commission: the great, unelected, centralising quango which has the power to approve planning applications for major infrastructure projects over the heads of local authorities - including allowing building on the Green Belt.

Here in Kent, everyone recognises the need to build more affordable housing for young families, and so all development is not necessarily bad development.  But instead of a top-down approach we need to incentivise local communities to support house building through real, financial incentives - such as matching the additional council tax raised by each council for each new house built for each of the six years after that house is built.

<h2>A positive role for the countryside</h2>

The need to turn top-down centralised planning on its head leads me to the second area where I believe we need new thinking.  We need to look again at the role of the countryside.  Instead of always seeing rural areas as places to be defended, we should spell out the positive and growing role of the countryside.

Of course, the primary role of the countryside will continue to be in the production of food.  I've said that farming must be environmentally sustainable, and I believe that wherever possible production should be local.  The Honest Food Campaign which I launched earlier this year is already persuading the major supermarkets to improve labelling so that we know where meat and meat products come from.  People want to know the origin of their food, and we can help British producers if we provide that information. 

The CPRE's work on Mapping Local Food Webs is valuable, and I know that here in Kent the CPRE has been raising awareness by creating your own local food web and promoting local production.  But government needs to take a lead, too.  It's a disgrace that not a single rasher of bacon served to our armed forces is British.  So we've pledged that under a Conservative Government, all Whitehall departments will be required to procure food that meets British standards wherever it can be achieved without increasing overall costs.  That will mean more local food.  And I want to see the same standards adopted in hospitals, schools and local authorities.  When the public sector spends over £2 billion a year on food procurement, sourcing locally could make a real difference to British farming.

<h2>Recreation and health</h2>

But if farming is a primary industry, the countryside is a unique kind of factory, because the shop floor is shared with other uses.  It's intriguing to note, in this 80th anniversary year of the Kent CPRE, that it was originally formed as a sub committee of the Kent Council for Social Services.  It's a telling reminder of the importance that previous generations placed on the countryside that it was considered a social service.  The countryside truly is a place for people - to be experienced and enjoyed.

Health and wellbeing is improved by access to the countryside.  It's important for our children, whose development is enhanced by outdoor play, and it's important for adults who can reduce the risks of stress-related conditions through the kind of tranquillity that nature provides.  Natural England even refer to the 'Natural Health Service'.  I'd like to see stronger links between farms and schools - and we simply mustn't allow the current health scare to prevent that. 

Whether it's a natural or a social service, our countryside has a significant role to play, and it can do much more.  For example, we value the Green Belt both as a vital green lung around our towns and cities and as a means of stopping damaging urban sprawl.  But we can do better than simply preserve the Green Belt in its current state.  It could become a place for people to visit and enjoy benefits such as peace and quiet, closeness to nature and fresh local food. 
 
Speaking about London, Boris Johnson has said that 'our great city needs to be framed by a vibrant Green Belt'.  Too often over the past decade, politicians have set town against country.  But we need to remember the symbiotic relationship that exists between urban and country areas.  We cannot disconnect rural and urban - each needs to value the other.

<h2>Wildlife and climate change</h2>

As well as the importance the countryside holds to us, countless species of animals rely on the unique habitats that exist in our landscape.  Here in Kent, the chalk downland is one of our most precious habitats, with a number of internationally important sites along the North Downs.  These support important populations of orchids and other plants, as well as downland butterflies such as the rare Chalkhill blue and the Adonis blue - the symbol of the Kent Wildlife Trust.

Britain's wildlife and habitats do not begin and end at the boundaries of our protected landscapes.  Just 9.3 per cent of England is covered by National Parks, 15 per cent by Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and 13 per cent by Green Belt.  These are our most important landscapes and we must maintain their protection.  But to enhance our biodiversity we need to think again about the opportunities for the countryside outside of these protected areas.

We should look at wildlife corridors and coherent ecological networks linking protected areas and farms.  We have to incentivise and encourage farmers and other land managers to play their part in the creation of this wildlife network.  The Government announcement that it is to hold a review into the creation of such a network is welcome, but it has to focus on how we can involve all the stewards of our landscape, the voluntary sector and communities, to create a truly sustainable network focussed on outcomes, rather than processes.  There is too much bureaucracy and regulation in the countryside.

The voluntary sector have a deep understanding of local wildlife, local issues and local people and are in a great position to expand land advice services and work with farmers to conserve and promote biodiversity.   5 million hectares of English farmland are already part of Environmental Stewardship agreements - around 50 per cent of our agricultural land.  We must ensure that we see such protection not only maintained, but enhanced.  We should be involving the voluntary sector much more in the design and delivery of agri-environment schemes, which work to get the right incentives in place for farmers to maximise environmental outcomes.  Linking reformed agri-environment schemes has the greatest potential for creating the ecological networks our wildlife needs.

The potential of these networks will increase as climate change adds greater pressure on our wildlife.  And of course our countryside has other important roles to play in the fight against climate change and in adapting to the changes which are already happening. 

For instance, by responsible management of peat bogs and marshes we can help reduce flooding downstream which would otherwise increase through changes in rainfall patterns.  We can also help lock carbon into landscapes which would otherwise be released, further contributing to global warming.

<h2>Valuing the countryside</h2>

I began by questioning why it is that we haven't valued the countryside in the past.  Everyone in this room has a sense, probably a powerful one, of the innate value of our countryside.  We probably believe that there is a moral case for preserving this national asset, one that transcends economics.

The problem with the invocation of a higher morality is that others might not share it, and it frequently fails to lead to practical action. We may believe that a green field is priceless, but a developer puts a price on it. 

David Cameron addressed this issue last year when he spoke to the CPRE and outlined the concept of social value - the idea that we need to factor in the wider public value of services like local post offices which might not otherwise be taken into account.

Similarly, in relation to conservation policy, we should aim to reveal the value of environmental assets and services, because a resource which is valued will be protected.  

Our natural eco-systems and the services which they provide - recreation, water storage, carbon storage, habitat for wildlife that sustains our life - are worth literally billions of pounds.  We need to find a way to unlock this value.  That's why we've been looking at innovative new mechanisms like conservation credits, to help develop incentives to encourage investment in new habitat or green space in our urban landscapes - green infrastructure which we will need as towns and cities become warmer.
 
We are still at the very early stages of exploring what this approach could mean for the protection of vital species and habitats.  However, we should not shy away from this new approach if it can be shown to provide new ways to defend our natural capital from over-exploitation. With a market approach to eco-system services, we can look forward to new ways of supporting wildlife, habitats and landscape that are based on ascribing a true value to biodiversity.

The traditional policy levers which we have been using - a reliance on central control and regulation - have proved insufficient.  Only if we can persuade and incentivise changes of behaviour on the ground - in civil society - will we succeed.  Earlier this month the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Elinor Ostrom for her work on collective solutions to social and environmental problems.  Professor Ostrom's work focuses on how communities can outperform formal government intervention: where big government fails, but local action succeeds. 

In the new politics, we need to be more focused on starting things than stopping them.  Of course, there will be bottom lines - a need for regulation which prevents damage from taking place.  But creating new wildlife habitats will rely on encouraging people to invest in conservation.  Similarly, trying to ensure adequate water supplies through regulation won't be sufficient.  We need a holistic approach to sustainable water management, one which puts a value on water and ensures that both the water industry and consumers have an incentive to conserve a natural resource which is in short supply.

<h2>Prosperity without growth </h2>

The debate cannot be between uncontrolled growth and ossification of the countryside.  Rather, we must focus on how we can grow sustainably.  As I said to the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month, if there's one thing that we have learnt from the last few years, it's that we cannot live beyond our means.  We cannot live beyond our economic means.  But neither can we live beyond our environmental means.  The resources of this planet are no more infinite than the Treasury's reserves.  We must learn to use them sustainably.

An unsustainable dash for growth will lead us to an environmental crunch as surely as unsustainable consumption fuelled the credit crunch, but the vision of 'Prosperity Without Growth' - to borrow the title of the Sustainable Development Commission report - is equally flawed.  We need to move beyond these old political terms of debate, and promote socially responsible, sustainable economic growth, where the potential of green technology is unlocked.

<h2>Conclusion</h2>

So I'm optimistic about the future of our countryside, and it's an optimism that is shared, I think, by the CPRE.  I believe that your 'Vision for the Countryside' in 2026 is achievable - that better planning and land management, sustainable farming, and a move to green energy can drive the kind of green growth that we need to restore and improve our precious countryside.

That will require us to take the right action, using markets to improve incentives, and resisting the temptations of big government.  The decades of unrestrained development in the 1930s and unsustainable farming in the 1970s serve as lessons to us . We need to learn those lessons and firmly move to a new era founded on the notion of sustainable development.

As Conservatives we believe in the inherent value of conserving things.  We know the importance of securing a good future for successive generations.  We also know that our countryside matters.  It matters for our health and wellbeing.  It matters for our wildlife.  It matters for food production.  It matters in our response to climate change.  It matters for its intrinsic beauty.  So we value the countryside, as you do.  Our task is to ensure that government, society, communities and  individuals value it, too.

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