We hope the next government will value the countryside, farming and heritage more and will have the courage to make difficult decisions. Here are 10 points for political parties to consider in the run-up to the General Election in May 2015.
Give land listed status
More land is unprotected than is covered by designations such as AONBs and SSSIs. If land and even views were subject to the same restrictions as listed buildings, developers would have to justify despoiling it and planning processes would be simplified. Outgoing National Trust chairman Simon Jenkins suggested it in 2012 when it could have been included in the National Planning Policy Framework, giving responsibility to county councils to select land parcels to be safeguarded or developed.
Spend fracking profits on underground pylons
Erecting pylons should be a thing of the past, but still they march hideously across the land. The National Grid and anti-pylon campaigners disagree about the true cost of putting them underground, but using a percentage of the profits that will come from the controversial drilling for shale gas to bury them would surely be a popular move.
Prioritise broadband as an essential service
You don’t have to live in the Scottish Highlands to suffer dodgy connections some South Downs villages are still in the Dark Ages, too. Despite the mounting push towards environmentally conscious home-working, plus an obvious need to boost the rural economy, more than one-third of people in the countryside complain of maddeningly slow broadband. If we can put a man on the Moon, we should be able to have a signal in Surrey.
Return VAT to zero on listed-building repair
The careless scrapping of this precious concession by George Osborne in 2012 was a mean little act. The tax system should reflect the value of built inheritance, rather than treating it as a punishment or problem for those who strive to look after and restore it. Ironically, there is no VAT on a new-build we should be thankful that even more beleaguered historic house owners aren’t tempted to flatten buildings.
Permit churches to control bats
Generally, the bat police need to have their powers curbed, but places of worship should certainly be exempt from the insultingly large costs and ludicrous paperwork involved in legally removing the creatures. Bats may look romantic flittering out of the belfry at twilight, but inside the building, their stinking urine and droppings destroy marble, brass and fabric in 2011, St Hilda’s in Ellerburn, North Yorkshire, even had to close due to bat damage.
Scrap Stamp Duty for locals
The number of buyers paying crippling rates of Stamp Duty has more than doubled in the past decade and it’s never been harder financially for first-timers. If a tiny cottage costs £200,000, there will be another £2,000 to find on top of the deposit, solicitors’ fees and so on. The rural population is ageing because it’s nigh on impossible for young people to buy where they were brought up; scrapping Stamp Duty for those born within a 50-mile radius of their desired property would help.
Drop the Hunting Act
Every so often, a law is passed that simply doesn’t work. The Hunting Act (2004), which Tony Blair later admitted was a mistake, is one such piece of legislation, for the way it seeks to criminalise, on the basis of technicalities, decent country people and those whose livelihoods depend on hunting. Certainly, the two-hound clause needs revisiting, as it’s simply neither efficient nor fair. Hunting in Northern Ireland has safeguards through the country’s wildlife cruelty laws; the rest of the UK should do the same.
Address the balance of species
We’ve said it before and we’re saying it again. The relaxation on cormorant licensing is a step in the right direction, but the badger cull should be extended without delay to all bovine TB-hit areas, before any more livestock farmers give up; licences should be issued to control buzzards, which certain groups are reluctant to admit kill ground-nesting birds, including hen harrier chicks; and burgeoning seal, mink, deer, wild-boar and grey-squirrel populations need tackling. And, sometimes, it should be remembered that people are more important.
Label British food more aggressively
There’s nothing more dispiriting than seeing supermarket meat counters full of discounted overseas bacon and lamb and it’s no wonder Britain’s dairy farmers are demotivated when a bottle of milk costs less than a bottle of water. The catering industry is starting to do its bit and fruit farmers are fighting back, but consumers need help, too, and labelling of British products should be far bolder and more obvious to help us make informed choices.
Towns to plant 20% more trees
Cities and even small market towns are steadily becoming denuded of trees, which brutalises the urban landscape, negatively impacts on wildlife and removes the health-improving and visual benefits that trees are now known to bestow. Councils should undertake to plant 20% more trees than their present allocation within the next five years. This should be linked to tougher laws to prevent the felling of trees in private gardens unless a corresponding undertaking is in place (and enforced) to replant with a more suitable species.