How does EU exit affect our work in CPRE?
The shortest and fairest answer to this question is, of course, “no-one knows”, and the uncertainty we face is perhaps the biggest challenge. CPRE’s chief concern must be how leaving the EU will affect the protection of the countryside. In South Yorkshire, the notion of countryside as a pastoral idyll, remote and tranquil, sheltered from the dirt and bustle of the city, is not very helpful to us. The countryside is not remote from the city, it is cheek-by-jowl, and very little of it is pastoral or idyllic; and yet it is hugely important. The landscape has shaped the way our urban areas have grown, the types of industry, the building materials, and Sheffield’s reputation as the Outdoor City is ever more important to its economy. We have a countryside that works very hard for us.
It is striking and perplexing that South Yorkshire was one of the keenest areas to leave the EU, despite having benefitted strongly from it. European legislation on water quality, habitats and air quality have transformed our once toxic rivers, protected wonderful nature reserves and have begun to tackle our still dirty air. EU Structural Funds over several decades have helped to regenerate coalfield communities and recycle brownfield sites; and having an economy increasingly driven by the universities, research and advanced manufacturing, which depend heavily on our membership of the single market. Yet the EU has often been used in the UK as a convenient scapegoat for homegrown problems, and this may be a cause of disaffection with it. The hype and even dishonesty that surrounded the referendum campaign have not only divided communities – especially on immigration issues, but have also masked legitimate concerns about the pros and cons of being in the EU.
I work with many local communities trying to influence planning decisions in their area and protect their countryside. The main threats to their countryside don’t come from either immigration or EU bureaucracy. There are two principle threats: first, our emasculated planning system, unable to distinguish between good and bad development and enslaved to a government obsessed with numerical targets; second, a default type of development that has no ‘place’, irrelevant to the vernacular character and function of where it is. As a result, new development is denuding places of their identity, creating Anywheresville.
Those threats are unlikely to change depending on whether or not we’re in the EU, because the planning system has little to do with Europe. If our exit worsens the economy, and in an ever more urbanised economy the countryside will suffer from recession more than the cities. If the UK unbinds itself from EU environmental legislation, that is a big worry for our air, water and wildlife. But the devil is very much in the detail on those issues, so we need to work hard at influencing the detail.
The biggest risk, as I see it, is that we are now facing at least two years of turmoil in public policy, quite probably an early General Election, and a spotlight on the divisive, ugly rise of hostility towards ethnic minorities. The failure of leadership across the party political spectrum is perhaps the most worrying aspect of the referendum debacle. The country is rudderless. These are not conditions in which our calls for rational improvements to the planning system, measured responses to climate change and a meaningful injection of loving care into our towns, villages and landscapes will be easily heard. Consequently, CPRE’s job just became a lot harder.
Andrew Wood, Planning Officer, August 2016