Magazine article The Spectator

Our Brown and Pleasant Land

Magazine article The Spectator

Our Brown and Pleasant Land

Article excerpt

THE CHIEF difficulty in addressing the urban-rural debate in the wake of the Countryside March is colour prejudice. Given a toss-up between despoiling something called the green belt with a swathe of Barratt homes and filling up the gaps in something else called brownfield sites -- that is, places which have previously been built on - which would you rather go for? Well, quite. On the most fraught environmental question of the day - miles more fraught than hunting - of whether it is necessary to build four and a half million new homes somewhere in Britain, the government has managed to shift the debate onto safer ground: where they should go and in what proportions. Green belt or brownfield sites? Sixty per cent on brownfields (John Prescott), or two-thirds (William Hague), or three-quarters (Lib Dems)? The higher the figure, the greener your credentials.

Green is good, brown is yuck. Green means fields with peaceful cattle grazing in them, just like the pull-out poster in the Daily Mail on the day of the Countryside March. Brown means derelict industrial sites, contaminated former gasworks, urban wasteland. Green means rural, brown means urban. And the English obsession with the countryside, which has not prevented vast swathes of it being turned into industrial-scale agrarian prairies, will ensure that the debate will probably be decided on the level of emotive linguistics.

If one of our primary concerns in discussing that weirdly all-encompassing issue called the environment is respect for nature, the protection of habitats, the conservation of endangered species, the maintenance of as much creaturely diversity as possible, then I'm afraid that this kind of dualism won't do. It is quite simply the case that many large-scale former industrial sites in English cities, which look to the eye of a property developer like so much blank space, are infinitely more hospitable to flowers, insects and birds than places which are designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty and attract coachloads of trippers. The government has put the architect Richard Rogers of all people -- the one who designed Terminal Five, the environmentalists' nightmare, for BAA in charge of a working party to determine which brownfield sites should be developed. Lord Rogers is a sophisticated, urbane man and Labour's pet planner, but I wonder whether the quiet charms of many genuinely important urban spaces may be a little too unobtrusive for him.

Certainly, at first blush, they were for me. I went the other day to a classic urban wasteland, what used to be Woolwich Arsenal. It is an enormous area next to the river in Thamesmead, which was once a firing range and storage area for explosives: flat, unprepossessing grassland, the only trees being the black poplars next to the river. You approach it by climbing through a gap in the wire fence that surrounds it, courtesy of enterprising local boys who were exercising their very own Right to Roam in the wasteland next to their housing estate. To those whose notion of natural beauty is based on horticultural prettiness, with trees thrown in, it is an unlovely prospect.

But this is precisely the kind of site that should be preserved by any government, any local authority, with the smallest regard for the maintenance of native habitats. Herb-rich grasslands and meadows are the most threatened parts of British ecology. …

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