In planning, defenders of nature are ‘nimbies’, opponents ‘vandals’. To end the shouting match we need a new language
Where to bury nuclear waste? It must be in impermeable rock and “for ever”. One community, Copeland district, welcomes it, but its higher tier authority, Cumbria, says no. Meanwhile the energy minister, Ed Davey, wants to put up lots of wind turbines, while the environment minister, Owen Paterson, does not. The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, wants to drive a high-speed railway across half of England. Half of England wants him to stop.
How should these disputes be settled? Most set money in contention with landscape. Quantifiable cash meets unquantifiable beauty. The argument lacks a common language, and thus degenerates into a shouting match, vandals against nimbies. Public good lurches into self-interest on either side.
The historian Raphael Samuel related in Theatres of Memory how, throughout recent history, left and right have contorted themselves over such a confusion of “values”. To the left, conservation is just “a posthumous victory for the aristocratic spirit over the levelling tendency”, but then it could be a rallying cry for agitators against profiteering developers. To the right, conservation might be an outrageous infringement of private property, or perhaps it is a vital defence of national heritage.
This week’s row over the train route for HS2 has been a classic of contortion. Some of its proponents see it as lovable vindication of Victorian rail enterprise, others as the opposite – modernism, regionalism, jobs and growth. Their enemies are what a BBC report dismissed as “mostly Tory shire-county nimbies”. Some of the HS2’s opponents merely live along the line of route. Others see it as a diversion of £33bn from worthier if less glamorous projects (including rail ones) for a subsidised Concorde-on-wheels to get premium-fare businessmen a little faster to London.
When Whitehall’s economic assessors reportedly gave up on the HS2 project, its lobbyists changed their tune. It might not make money or sense, but it was the new Olympics: a grand project bringing prestige to Britain. The contractors, once advocates of new roads, saw where the contracts were flowing and switched to rail. This was despite roads being safer economics and, if subsidy is the issue, more needed by business and the poor who cannot afford trains.
These arguments are compounded by ever-changing imponderables. We now regard as beautiful Victorian industrial buildings we once thought ugly. Postwar housing estates were once beautiful but are now ugly. To defend every rural meadow is silly, when there is compensating benefit and the case for change is made. The landscape has always been a compromise between man and nature, even between one beauty and another.
It is hard is to balance these competing imponderables when the war is fought by mercenary armies. The rows over nuclear waste, HS2 and wind turbines are almost entirely between those with particular interests at stake – profiteers against those whose amenity is directly infringed. The public realm is lost in the noise. This is partly because the disputes are handled mostly by people who do not regard Britain as beautiful any more. They live in London and holiday abroad. They would fight to save a Tuscan prospect or a Provençal shore, but not for Britain’s hills and dales.
The philosopher Jeremy Bentham tried to resolve these competing values through his “felicific calculus“. He invented units of pleasure and pain, hedons and dolors, to work out “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. This proved no more useful to Victorian railway legislators than to those now coaxing Swampies out of trees or facing an HS2 roaring down the track.
There are no plausible units of value to attach to the pleasure of walking through a wood or across a field. Governments try to assert “social gains” that are as wishy-washy as Bentham’s hedons. We are told there are quantifiable “external benefits” to getting businessmen from Birmingham to London a few minutes sooner. No mention is made of unquantifiable losses, such as of central Camden or the Chiltern scenery.
The “modernists” claim superiority by sheer virtue of quantifiability. It yields so many “jobs”, the grander the project the greater the jobs, as if sheer size was vindication itself. As the army knows, an aircraft carrier always beats a hundred tanks and a thousand soldiers in the ranks of cabinet glamour. Yet modernisation does not always pay back. The canals never did. Nor did Concorde. The modernisation of central Birmingham in the 1970s was so disastrous it has had to be demolished and started again. So have hundreds of postwar housing estates.
In truth, we have made some progress. I assume even the most philistine of government anti-planners would not demolish Covent Garden or put Shards in Hyde Park or wind turbines on Hampstead Heath. They would not build over the Peak District to ease Sheffield’s housing shortage. Deep down, they know it would be wrong.
It would be helpful to know why they know it is wrong, where they draw the line between private profit and public benefit; money and beauty. If we can just agree on the concept of such a line, we can then discuss where in each case to draw it, where town ends and country begins. Without some such certainty there is open war.
This used to be called town and country planning. Democratic councils fixed zones, priorities, amenities and borders. Now central government has assumed that function through direction or inspection, and is making a terrible mess. Planning has become a Premier League shouting match, “nimbies” against “vandals”. It ends in delay, expense and the law, which is where British planning is today.