Reconstituting rurality

IT WAS PERHAPS inevitable that the call for abolition of Green Belt by the RTPI should be trashed, particularly so by that denizen of intellectual balance, the CPRE. Yet once more, an attempt to stimulate long overdue discussion on rural planning, and to move past a no-longer tenable view of rural land use, was throttled at birth – conservation at its most triumphant and in its inherent thoughtlessness. Lets redress this by setting up an Aunt Sally and then demolishing it!

"Britain is an overcrowded island."

That’s a piece of received wisdom that even the most land-deprived are foolish enough to believe. And yet the Urban White Paper provides the numbers that disproves this (see “Chart 1 Proportion of land used and proportion of population accommodated by settlement size” in Our Towns and Cities: The Future - Delivering an Urban Renaissance, DETR Nov 2000).

In England, the 20% of population that live in settlements of 10,000 and less, get to occupy 93% of our land space. Thus it is the other 80% who live in the remaining 7% of land space that suffer from the overcrowding! England isn’t part of an overcrowded island, it just happens to have policies that confine most of the population to an artificial urban density – an enforced overcrowding. Green Belt is only one measure that ensures this – the rest of the planning system and particularly PPG7 maintain it. But to whose benefit?

Lets quote Dr Michael Woods:

“The planning system is a crucial force in shaping the nature and structure of our rural areas. Its role as a regulator of landuse has been essentially to zone or control development in particular areas. The pattern on the ground however, is more to do with the shifting nature of political control and associated societal interests rather than a democratic use of the system. State vs. local and/or local group vs. local groups play out conflicts every day. Planning policy prevents significant change outside settlements; designated areas are strictly controlled and there are only limited opportunities for infill development. These policies seem to benefit middle class ex-urbanites and owners of land who have planning permission for development”

Woods again:

“Research shows that within rural areas there is a power struggle going on between those that have and want more and those that have and those that don’t have as much as they used to and those that want something and those that need. That is a political no win situation.”

Cloke and Goodwin say the same with some erudition:

“Rural Politics as such may be seen as a complex modality of power, contest and participation, reflecting change, both in the wider colonisation of the politics of a commodified environment and in the localised politics of those who have colonised a slice of that environment”

(In Cloke P and Goodwin M (1993) Regulation, green politics and the rural; in Harper S (eds) (1993) The Greening of Rural Policy: International perspectives; 27-41 London Belhaven Press)

Cloke again:

“The majority of rural people have made a decision to live in rural areas. They are more interested in policies to conserve the landscape rather than policies to raise the standard of living for the minority of deprived or disadvantaged residents in rural areas.”

(And see Cloke P Millbourne P and Thomas C (1997) Living lives in different ways? Deprivation, marginalisation and changing lifestyles in rural England Transactions of British geographers 22 210-230)

To this, Woods adds:

“Rural areas are beset by powerful interests who do not want their perception of rurality threatened by inappropriate bodies, development or change. This can include state meddling in local affairs and sovereignty, agricultural decline, low cost housing or any more development.”

(And see Woods M (1998) Advocating rurality? The repositioning of rural local government. Journal of Rural Studies 14 13-26)

But for standing the issue bolt upright against a wall, we need to go back to the early nineties, to a study of rural housing in Buckinghamshire funded by the ESRC. Murdoch and Marsden recount in their research how their setting foot in rural villages unearthed a surveillance system for outsiders that would put military intelligence to shame (see Jonathan Murdoch and Terry Marsden (1996) Reconstituting Rurality: Class, Community and Power in the Development Process, UCL Press).

Their experience led them to believe that rural change and class formation were inexplicably bound to together. This is what they had to say:

“The context in which the processes of countryside change are being played out – a planning system with a preservationist bias, an agricultural sector in crisis, a burgeoning middle class and a nation with an Arcadian view of its past – is common to many localities across England. We may thus expect to see rurality reconstituted as part and parcel of middle class formation in many areas. In fact we would claim that it is this particular reconstitution which is currently dominant in rural Britain. Some areas clearly provide a fertile seed bed in which middle class formation can take place, while others may be more antagonistic. However, it seems to us that the middle classes will gradually exert its hold over our wider stretches of rural land, replacing an agricultural concern with a preservationist one.”

Class formation is about adopting a common and desirable identity. Murdoch and Marsden were convinced that rural living offered just such an opportunity for the middle classes, bringing in a new strand of power to the countryside that complimented the established inherited order:

“Class formation does not take place on the head of a pin. It takes place in the specific places as actors come together, using the assets at their disposal in order to impose their conceptions of space upon others. The rural thereby becomes an expression of power, of the way sets of relations are drawn together and used to impose a unity of goals.”

And they were also clear that this hankering after rurality was not in anyway a concern for environment, although that could be a suitable artifice to gain and maintain it:

“It is often the way in rural England that concern for the rural environment can be translated into the desire to protect a particular social space for the benefit of a privileged social group. Fighting to maintain the rural environment, and struggling against development, is a more acceptable endeavour than seeking to exclude the less well off.”

Finishing with a summation from Woods, we can see that the sectional interests of the resource rich forever dog rural land use:

“The results of this complex interplay of social and power relations leaves some people marginalised in their own community as other individuals and groups move in and bring with them both economic power, political and social ambitions and even a different view of what rurality is all about.”

We must start to address this now, in democracy and equality before the polarisation that it foreshadows becomes completed.

Mark Fisher, 20 May 2002