The 12th of May 2010 was supposed to have been such a great day for Much-Whining-in-the-Wolds. After the indecisive general election result and the shilly-shallying of that untrustworthy Mr Clegg, a coalition had finally been formed and Brown was out. In genteel homes all across the parish very passable champagne was being raised to the lips. Those unbearable socialists might have stopped them hunting over England’s green and pleasant land, but their threat to cover what was left of it in bricks and mortar was in tatters. Instead that nice Caroline Spelman was going to abolish housing targets and let local people decide how many new homes should be built.
“And let’s be honest”, people said privately to each other, “that isn’t going to be very many. Not round here at any rate.”
What’s more, the hated plan to expose those quite nice parts of west London where their sons and daughters lived to aircraft noise from a third runway at Heathrow was going the same way as the housing targets.
The more cynical members of the Much Whining Action Committee might have had a brief pause for thought. A close reading of the Conservatives “Open Source Planning” green paper did rather suggest that as long as developers could buy off most of the neighbours the community would have no say at all on major developments. And that high speed railway line which was now promised instead of the Heathrow expansion was going to have to go somewhere. But overall the mood was one of slightly squiffy elation.
Looking back now it was a great shame that those piles of old placards were all used for the 2010 village bonfire – the one with the hilarious mock up of that buffoon John Prescott on the top. Because the campaigners of Much Whining, like so many others across the shires, had to make a whole lot of new ones in 2011.
It all started with High Speed 2. It had seemed such a good idea to begin with. After all, Colonel and Mrs Enraged-Trumpeting had enjoyed that lovely weekend in Paris on Eurostar. Much more civilised than flying, and the refurbished St Pancras station had looked lovely, with that statue of John Betjeman gazing fondly on as the travellers hurried past. Now one of the blasted trains was going to run right past the front door of Whining Hall, and rattle the tea cups in every house in the parish.
Then no sooner had the consultation on the route of HS2 ended, than the Government brought out something called the National Planning Policy Framework. This was all a bit long and bureaucratic, but the gist of it seemed to be that it was open season for developers everywhere unless you were in the Green Belt or an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And Much Whining wasn’t. It was green, of course, and it was also beautiful. But that didn’t seem to matter any more. It was now the wrong side of an arbitrary line drawn years ago by some faceless office wallah, who probably hadn’t even come to have a look at the village.
Thank goodness at least for this new rule about petitions. If you get 100,000 signatures then parliament has to hold a debate. That will soon show the strength of feeling. So in the spring the Red Lion had its Stop HS2 petition behind the bar, and in the autumn the volunteers in the National Trust Gift Shop at Whining Mill more or less frog-marched every visitor over to add their names to the already long list opposing the new Planning Policy. It got a bit difficult when the bureaucrats pointed out that only signatures on the internet counted towards the 100,000, but in the end they had the Commons debate they were entitled to. Well to be honest perhaps “harangue” was the better word. Only the MPs who objected showed up really, and it wasn’t that clear that anybody else was listening.
At least the Telegraph ran its “Hands off Our Land” campaign. While the Times and that chancer Murdoch were sucking up to the Government by supporting the new planning rules and HS2, only the Telegraph could be relied upon to represent its readers properly. Indeed older residents of Much Whining became misty-eyed comparing the impact of the campaign to the rush to join the Home Guard in 1940. Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust wrote that the eurozone crisis was caused by lax planning regimes, and every week there seemed to be a new exposé showing how property developers were bankrolling the Tory party.
And then in December, as the village butcher finally called it a day in the face of competition from the new Tesco, the parishioners turned on their televisions to find some Z-list celebrity telling the Government how to save the High Street. Anyone in Much Whining could have told them the answer, but it’s too late now. There are all those shops already on that industrial estate on the by-pass, and Tesco is here to stay. Mind you – as Mrs Muddle said – their special offer Blanc de Noirs champagne that the vicar’s cleaner brought over for last year’s general election party was really very good value.
Back in the real world, and for those of us with long memories, 2011 has been like a return to 1979. Now of course there are differences. I wouldn’t give Little Mix much chance in a back alley with the Sex Pistols or The Damned for example, but as far as planning is concerned things are eerily similar. Whatever can’t be blamed on Brussels is once again being blamed on Planners. For Michael Heseltine’s “jobs lost in filing cabinets” we now have David Cameron’s “enemies of enterprise”. Indeed Enterprise Zones themselves are back, but unemployment is still rising inexorably. And in place of the Socialist Workers Party there is now Occupy LSX.
Just like thirty years ago, the forces of opposition won’t be going down without a fight. After ten years of planner-bashing even the last Conservative government realised that its core vote rather liked planning, and brought in the 1991 Act. This required all planning decisions to be made in accordance with a proper Local Plan, which in turn produced lots of jobs for town planners, and later, quite a few years later in fact, some actual Local Plans themselves.
So I confidently predict that 2012 will see more placards, more e petitions, more work for planning lawyers, and very probably more prevaricating by the Government about major decisions. Whether the twin forces of the National Trust and Stop HS2 bring about a change of heart by the coalition is rather harder to predict.
All I can say for sure is that I will be continuing to visit some of the places where the heat is on, and finding out what people think On the Ground. I hope you will come with me.