A laptop lament from me and my muddy boots

MUDDY-BOOTED saviours or interfering idealists?

Townies who like a good walk in the countryside can be seen in different lights. They help preserve the working countryside with their visits; or they are outsiders who pop by with their sandwiches and flasks, sticking their metropolitan noses in.

My old boots have trampled some miles. And at the end of each trip, they are brought back to suburban York to be cleaned up and waxed on a diligent day. Or left sitting in the conservatory in a lazy week.

Mostly I am with the muddy-booted saviours on this matter. So my boots were twitching with indignation about a new report from the National Trust. This suggests that some of England’s most beautiful landscapes are seeing inappropriate development because planning rules are not being followed properly. The trust claims that local planners are not always applying planning law correctly in England’s 34 areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). One example of concern is the building of housing on the edge of Bath, not far from where we were walking last week, while others include chicken farms in Shropshire and solar panels in Thomas Hardy country in Dorset.

ANOBs were originally established under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. They lie outside of national parks, where the protection is stronger. Examples in Yorkshire include the Howardian Hills, that lovely area surrounding Castle Howard, where the flat-bottomed Vale of York rucks up into rising and dipping hills.

Other geographically local areas include the North Pennines which lies between the national parks of the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland. There is also Nidderdale on the eastern flanks of the Yorkshire Pennines, stretching from Great Whernside towards the Vale of York, and including Brimham Rocks, where my old boots trod recently.

Because these areas lack the fuller safeguards afforded to national parks, the need for protection is open to greater debate – and is therefore particularly important. In its report, the National Trust accepts the need to build more houses, acknowledging that “ANOBs are living and working landscapes” but adds that local needs can be met through “high quality development in appropriate locations”.

The problem here is knottier than a muddied bootlace. It’s all open to so much interpretation. One man’s inappropriate site is another’s perfect plot; one man’s quality development is another’s misplaced eyesore, and so on.

A government spokesman was on hand today to tell The Guardian something utterly meaningless: “We welcome the National Trust’s recognition of the strong protection we have set out for areas of outstanding natural beauty and other protected areas…”

Let’s analyse those weasel words – “We will only answer your question by turning it on its head so that we appear to be doing everything right on this matter…”

The supplier of slippery government words added that “local authorities should ensure they play their part in protecting these valued areas…” – analyse that and you get: “It’s not our fault, it’s all down to those local authorities…”

The trust in turn points out that AONBs are under strain because planning and managing teams in those local authorities have been cut by 40 per cent in the past five years, making it harder to ensure that quality developments are passed. In other words, the problem has been caused in effect by government cuts to local authorities.

Now in a troubled world all this might seem a small matter. Yet if you only consider the ‘big’ problems, and often we don’t handle those well anyway, it is too easy to forget smaller matters that can have a big impact. Much of what truly makes England is to be found in the beautiful working countryside. This should be allowed to be both beautiful and to be a place of work, something which requires a properly run planning system.

Well, that’s what me and my muddy boots think. And here’s looking forward to the annual Dales trip this weekend.

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