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Four Stone Walls

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The cover of a recent issue of Private Eye’ has, under the heading “Tory Plan for the Countryside”, a picture of some rolling farmland, with a sheep saying, “They’ve got a lot of concrete proposals”. This is, of course, a reference to the current debate about reform to the planning system in England, which has generated a bit of controversy. Private Eye’s’ treatment is, as ever, very funny, but it is also, of course, a caricature (That’s the point. Ed.) of a complex debate.

 This debate isn’t, as it is sometimes portrayed, a straight choice between, on the one hand, those who would concrete over England’s green and pleasant land, and, on the other, those who would oppose any development whatsoever, in their back yard or anyone else’s. There are, doubtless, some on both sides of the debate who fall into that category. But that would also be a caricature. The new draft National Planning Policy Framework, which will form the basis of the reformed planning system in England (though not in the rest of the UK), has a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’. And the debate is about what that means, and how to how to protect the environment and the landscape without leaving the countryside as an agricultural theme park.

That ‘Private Eye’ cover used a photo of what you might describe as an unspoilt rural idyll. But it, like much of our landscape, isn’t entirely ‘natural’, but bears the imprint of mankind. It’s been thus since we stopped being hunter-gatherers and settled down. Those picturesque dry stone walls aren’t the result of glacial erosion or whatever: somebody built them. Or take the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, the UK’s largest protected wetland, and with the status of a national park. Beautiful, yes: naturally-occurring, no. The Broads are the result of the flooding of peat excavations that began in Roman times and lasted until the Middle Ages. Then there’s the RSPB nature reserve at Loch Gruinart. Now that’s what I call idyllic. But it is a partially-artificial landscape, managed now for wildlife, but using sea defences that date back 200 years to when land was first reclaimed for farming. It’s not actually in England, but it illustrates the point.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m against unfettered development, and would certainly agree that anyone who suggested a major development of four and five bedroom executive homes at Gruinart should probably be locked up. But I digress. What I meant to say was that, as it happens, the mobile network operators have all signed a Joint Accord with the Association of National Park Authorities, and Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, designed to protect the special qualities of our finest landscapes while making the best possible provision for telecommunication services for the people who live there. The Joint Accord is on our website.

The debate about sustainable development is about striking a balance between the need to protect the environment and the needs of people. As the lyric in Capercaillie’s 'Four Stone Walls’ goes, “though we love our scenery, wouldn't we just love somewhere to stay?” It’s not a song that’s in any way pro-business or pro development – listen to the lyrics in full if you don’t believe me, and get an earful of Karen Matheson’s incomparable vocals as a bonus. But it is a reminder that, in the debate about planning, we do need to balance the needs of reasonable environmental protection and the needs of ordinary folk, who want jobs, homes, and services.

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The Mobile Operators Association (MOA) represents the four UK mobile network operators – EE (the company that runs EE, Orange & T-Mobile in the UK), O2, Three, and Vodafone – on radio frequency (RF) health and safety, and related town planning issues associated with the use of mobile phone technology.

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