Let’s help MPs to roll back the carpet of concrete

No concrete here! Keith Skipper enjoying some development-free Norfolk - Stiffkey Marshes.

No concrete here! Keith Skipper enjoying some development-free Norfolk - Stiffkey Marshes. - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper says we should back local MPs who to hold back on the tide of building in Norfolk.

It's been hard going since turn of the year for those seeking respite from devilishly dark clouds looming over what's left of Norfolk's green and pleasant land.

For me, a couple of handy little boosts fashioned by local MPs hinted at prompting a much-needed new debate on how far and how fast we can go without surrendering ignominiously to commuters, congestion and convulsions brought on by artificial expansion.

Then, after a period of quiet reflection, hiding from icy winds on Cromer Pier, familiar doubts returned about those who make the big decisions, or at least influence them, to show enough courage and foresight to occasionally keep meadows ahead of money.

First tiny ray of hope emerged from a business breakfast hosted by South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon. Top of the agenda was 'Growing Norfolk - while retaining what keeps it so special'.

A welcome public admission that there's a mighty difficult balancing act demanding attention. I wonder how many of those attending brought clear-cut 'green' credentials to the table…

Another slither of encouragement for disciples of moderation arrived just a few days later when Mid-Norfolk MP George Freeman, an ardent 'localism' supporter, called a debate in Parliament on local planning. He urged more protection for rural communities against 'aggressive' developers.

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He provided examples from his own constituency of 'clear exploitation' of land supply rules by out-of-town developers and won assurance from Housing Minister Dominic Raab to offer greater protection for local authorities.

Good news, of course, but only a small brick out of the massive wall of confusion and unfairness surrounding one of the major topics of our age. A complex planning system still seems loaded in favour of big developers looking for loopholes and pushing their luck in the numbers game.

They stress it's just a case of following government policy on meeting urgent housing needs and warn cash-strapped councils how refusing an application could seriously hurt financially if an appeal goes against local decision-makers. I have heard that described many times as bullying.

It would be useful to learn views of other Norfolk and Suffolk MPs on planning processes in general and obvious impact on 'special' places in particular. We are entitled to a bit more than a litany of 'economic benefits', 'exciting opportunities' and 'drawbridge mentality'.

Sadly, recent history suggests it would be foolish to expect very much from those who might be stirred to comment or even take a closer look at what's going on around them. Perhaps a profusion of safe parliamentary seats in this area tends to breed a strong 'don't rock the boat' philosophy.

I reckon it is necessary to go back as far as the summer of 1986 to find the last meaningful attempt to launch a Great Debate about our countryside's future in the face of unprecedented pressure brought on by large-scale development. It came from a surprising source.

John MacGregor's captivating 'carpet of concrete' speech left more sensitive souls wholly relieved that at last someone important had found the courage to speak out with a belief that he really wanted fresh thinking on matters previously dismissed as off limits.

The South Norfolk MP, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, went on to become a key figure in the Thatcher and Major governments hardly remembered for dipping green fingers into an embattled countryside. He was made a life peer as Baron MacGregor of Pulham Market in 2001.

An accomplished magician, he deserves praise even now for attempting that outlandish trick of stirring the Norfolk pot while following a strict Westminster menu. His stark warning of how an increasingly popular place in which to live and work could turn into 'a dormitory sprawl on a carpet of concrete' won scant support among his fellow MPs in the area under siege.

More than 30 years later, a murky mixture of complacency and denial among too many of our elected representatives at all levels continues to forestall hopes of an open and honest discussion about what is genuinely needed rather than gratuitously accepted,

I recall a meeting of Mitford and Launditch Rural District Council during my early days as local press reporter when 'erection of dwellings' tended to sneak in ahead of 'building homes'. A village veteran on what is now George Freeman's mid-Norfolk patch suddenly rose to his feet and asked the clerk: 'Jist why are we a-buildin' all these bloomin' howses?'

He's still waiting for an answer.