25 June 2020
View from the Cotswolds
Under Cover of Covid
By Paul Branch
With most of the news for the past three month focused on the virus, it’s not surprising that other things happen without the benefit of public scrutiny, be it in Parliament or by the media. Not that I’m saying this escape from rigour is in any way deliberate or planned, heaven forfend!
In this neck of the woods nestling quietly around Chipping Norton, attention has turned to two issues gaily sailing along under their own momentum: the new Agriculture Bill aimed at replacing much of what we’d grown accustomed to when we were part of the EU, and the long-held objective of the government to tear up the rule book on local planning. But first a bit of a geography/demography lesson on where and who we are (if only for the benefit of one Shaw Sheet diarist who seemed to think the Cotswolds is a suburb of London … one really wonders about the education and upbringing of such people).
Located in the West Midlands (we leave the East to places like Leicester), and specifically West Oxfordshire, Chipping Norton is a once thriving wool market town now adjacent to something The Times calls the “Cotswolds Golden Triangle”, allegedly roughly equivalent to Chelsea/Notting Hill. When the sheep left and Beeching closed down the station, the town kept going and survived the later closure of the Parker Knoll furniture factory. And still it keeps bustling and growing although we await the outcome of the pandemic.
Today the town relies on tourists, cafes, restaurants, antique shops (one famous ex-proprietor being Ronnie Barker) and estate agents. Politically it’s a Labour hot spot in the true blue Tory landscape of the shires. The Chipping Norton Set gained brief notoriety a few years ago with the likes of local residents CallMeDave Cameron, Jeremy Clarkson, Rebekah Brooks, Amanda Holden and Alex James (ex-Blur to save you looking him up, now a dairy farmer and one of the Blessed Cheesemakers). Thankfully the embarrassment they caused seems to have passed.
This is predominantly farming country, arable and livestock, with landowning families having farmed for generations and rightly being proud of their produce and the associated high quality standards. Good nutritious food and environmental standards come at a price, but they also yield benefits to the community in terms of overall health. Our food imports from other countries also need to comply with our own farming standards – preventing cheaper, poor quality produce from reducing the nation’s wellbeing and skewing the market to the disadvantage of our home producers. Such matters are clearly at the heart of the new trade agreements now being discussed.
The worry here is that in the frantic haste to sign new agreements to replace our rather convenient existing EU treaties by the end of the year, try as it might, the government will forget the promises about maintaining high standards and our farmers’ commercial competitiveness. The Agriculture Bill now being addressed in Parliament did originally have all the promised necessary safeguards and caveats, but now with the unstoppable December deadline increasingly imminent the National Farmers’ Union has expressed its appalled dismay at the deletion of these clauses and their replacement by a very simple philosophy: trust the consumer to decide, and put our faith in government. And here begins the slippery slope of a race to the chlorinated bottom.
The second issue, Planning, has to do with the simple fact that the Cotswolds region is a very pleasant, comfortably convenient and relatively affluent place to live, so much so that the villages around Chipping Norton have disconcertingly large populations of second homers – usually London dwellers who fancy a countryside break away from it all every now and again in a picturesque renovated cottage, with absolutely no need to actually contribute socially to the local ambience. Their interest drives up house prices, which is good if you’re a local seller aiming to get as much as you can for the old family home, but bad news if you’re a local buyer trying to move back with your young family to the place of your roots.
The answer you might think is simple: build more, affordable housing, to buy or to rent, so that both sets of requirements can be met. The reality is that there’s far more shareholder value in building 4-5 bedroomed executive detached houses, aimed at the non-local market, so the current rule book on planning regulations for local housing development which clearly calls out for affordable housing is about to feed an enormous bonfire being constructed by the government’s advisers. And that also includes setting alight the measures aimed at preventing Green Belt land being used for brown field development.
Covid-19 has had its impact here but not so much as you would expect given its ageing population. The good news is that those of us in the 70-79 age bracket now seem to be among the least affected by the virus (second only to the very young …. maybe a similarity there?). But we worry about the government having its way with agriculture in order to get those trade agreements signed at any cost, and the doing away with any semblance of structured sensible development planning. A senior government adviser (guess who?) was quoted this week as proclaiming the end of planning practices as we know them and open season on outdated regulations, no doubt in response to increasingly strident demands from developers to get their economy going again, as well as ensuring a constant flow of donations into the coffers of the Conservative Party.
This same adviser allegedly also attributed media criticism of the government (on any topic presumably, not just the virus), and disconcertingly fulsome praise for Keir Starmer’s performance so far, to Left-biased Remainers … looks like he really doesn’t know when to stop (until he gets to Durham of course).
So if agriculture and/or local development planning interest you, and you don’t want the issues covered up by Covid, try contacting your local MP with your concerns. It would do them all good to receive another full mailbag/inbox as our MP did when he encouraged us patronisingly on live TV to show Dominic Cummings some compassion … I doubt he’ll try that one again.