Green and pleasant land (2)

Human society is based on want. Wild-eyed visionaries may dream of a world without need. Cloud-cuckoo-land. It can’t be done.

A story that one might have expected to hit the headlines as a result of ‘silly season’ – when newspapers (by which I mean all kinds of news media, printed and online) resort to writing any old rubbish, just to get the pages filled – was doing the rounds this week.

HRH The Princess Royal – the embodiment, one would have thought, of the countryside-is-sacred sentiment – waded in on the side of housebuilders.

As usual, the devil is in the detail. What Princess Anne was actually saying was not that one should build wily-nilly over all the countryside, rather than select development, with proper regard for the needs of the local communities, can be a good rather than a bad thing.

And she has a point. This column has already written about the need to build the right properties in the right locations for the right people to live in. Putting it like that it does sound slightly snobbish (I am in Royal Tunbridge Wells after all!) but what I mean is that if you build houses for local people who can live and work in the local community then you stand the chance of that local community surviving. Even thriving.

Rural communities need living breathing people in order to justify their services: the doctors’ surgery, the primary school, the pub, the mobile library (because after Cameron’s finished there’ll be precious few of the other sort left), the bus service.

We do not have enough homes in this country for the people who want them. Fact. We have not been building anything like the number of homes that we need for, well, it seems like forever. The Coalition has advocated building ‘garden cities’ to cope with this demand. But The Princess Royal questions this. She believes that villages can and must be the best places to build new developments. Smaller developments. But lots of them.

Of course, your idea of a small development will probably differ depend whether you are head of Persimmon or a villager or even, the patron of the English Rural Housing Association as Princess Anne is.

Big ‘garden cities’ require a lot of infrastructure and lot of planning, time and effort. They require big roads, new schools, new transport links and take a lot of time to build. So, the argument is, wouldn’t it be better to build a lot more smaller developments, in places like villages where people, want to live where they can take advantage of the existing services – the doctors’ surgery, the primary school, the pub, the mobile library, the bus service?

And yes, it probably would be better. Were we living in a parallel universe. Alas, we have just come through one of the worst recessions and financial crises in living memory. And one of the things that building large-scale developments and ‘garden cities’ would do is provide jobs and work for lots and lots of people and a market for building materials that manufacturers have been desperate for the last few years.

So, nice idea. Lovely idea in fact. But probably not one that it going to come to fruition anytime soon.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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