As commentators attempt to digest and explain the phenomenal electoral success of Nigel Farage’s Ukip, one thing is clear. Support for this insurgent party is not confined to a particular section of the population or region of the UK. As Ed Conway pointed out in the Times:
“People in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, where house prices and employment rates are well above the national average, shifted their votes towards Ukip at almost precisely the same rate (a swing of just over 30 percent) as those in Rotherham, where house prices and employment rates are well below the national average.”
In other words, the leafy Home Counties are just as disillusioned with the mainstream parties as the northern cities.
One of the reasons for the anger felt by middle England is surely the havoc wreaked on the countryside by the Coalition’s planning policies. Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi, whose Stratford on Avon constituency is at the very heart of England, puts it like this:
“The physical harm being inflicted on the countryside as a result of the Coalition’s planning reforms could become the defining legacy of this government.”
It is baffling that Conservative ministers have led on these policies, inflicting irreversible damage not only on middle England but also on their own voter base.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England has published new evidence showing the needless destruction of greenfield sites, in Green belts, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and other historic rural environments.
“Needless” because there is enough brownfield land available for 1.5 million new homes. This land is lying unused, often scarring the landscape, while development is being directed to the greenfield land most profitable for large housebuilding companies.
In addition, brownfield sites, around London and other towns and cities, lie closest to jobs and services, whereas greenfield sites lack infrastructure and entail long car journeys to work.
Local councils are being pressured to ignore local priorities and come up with housebuilding figures to comply with government targets, bypassing local choice. The new planning laws require them to demonstrate a five year supply of “deliverable” housing sites.
If a council attempts to resist a developer’s application, such as a big housing estate on the edge of a village or in a historic setting, the developer has the right to appeal, and indeed to go on submitting variations of the same application until they succeed. Yet local communities have no right of appeal against planning approval.
Councils also face severe financial disincentives if they try to stop a development, because they will have to meet the costs of fighting the appeal. With a catch-all “presumption of sustainable development” built into the new law, few local authorities feel able to turn down new development, however inappropriate or unpopular.
This was a government that promised to give local people more control than ever before, and introduced the concept of “Neighbourhood Planning”, sold to voters as the chance to bring planning decisions down to the most local level.
Yet as communities in villages up and down the country are now discovering, drawing up a neighbourhood plan is a fiendishly complicated, time consuming and expensive process, beset by bureaucracy and jargon. Worst of all, these plans will only be permitted if they comply with the arbitrary housing targets imposed from above, and cannot be implemented unless and until local councils demonstrate their five year supply.
No wonder voters feel defrauded. And it should be no surprise that Ukip is reaping the electoral benefit. Unless the Conservative leadership starts paying attention to backbenchers like Mr Zahawi, introduces a policy of “brownfield first” and gives genuine local planning control, former Conservative voters across rural England will stay with Ukip at next year’s general election too.