In 2008 Jeremy Clarkson thought a little agriculture on the side might do him good. He bought a farm in fashionable Cotswold country, acquired a Lamborghini tractor and a handful of local workers and found the experience deeply satisfying. The farm was earning so little income – just £140 last year – that he named it Diddly Squat. With a personal fortune estimated in the millions, this seemed hardly to matter.
Clarkson is a man of irrepressible enterprise. Last year he turned the farm into a set for an Amazon television series about himself and his agricultural endeavours. Things have expanded dramatically since the series first aired. A farm shop run by Clarkson’s girlfriend, Lisa Hogan, has been doing a brisk trade. “What started with planning permission to build a small shop selling local produce, a lambing shed and 10 car parking spaces, has altered into hundreds of cars parking in a field, a cafe serving hot food and thousands of fans queueing for hours to buy branded T-shirts, caps and bags,” reports the Times. A licensing application envisages turning the farmyard over to shopping and a restaurant/entertainment venue for up to 150 people.
The neighbouring picturesque village of Chadlington finds itself facing a Disney-like invasion of Clarkson fans. The parish council said the proposed conversion of the old lambing shed in a planning application should not mean “change of use”. Clarkson may have other ideas. Residents, already upset by the influx of visitors, were not pacified by a recent wine and cheese get-together hosted by the great man in a vague bid to pacify local dissent.
Clarksonville Comes to Chadlington is a vignette of a battle now raging in various forms across England’s countryside. Lockdown has hurled a tidal wave of hybrid commuters, home-workers and weekenders at tranquil havens once largely confined to “locals”. Rural tranquillity is assaulted by everything from soaring house prices to cohorts of big housebuilders and projects of blatant commercial vanity.
Country Life magazine’s Cotswolds special issue in May was like a guidebook to the Klondike. Houses in discrete Chipping Campden now top £1m. The average Zoopla price of a property in the Chilterns’ Turville village is currently £1.2m. The economic reality is that anywhere within an hour or so of west London is in effect Notting Hill. What gentrification once did to London’s historic neighbourhoods it is now doing to the rural south and west of England and beyond.
Elsewhere, this summer the coastal villages of Cornwall, west Wales and the Lake District experienced an invasion of second homers, holiday rentals and Airbnb guests. Some villages have reported a 30% turnover of houses as residents realise their assets and move on.
This is naturally drawing in hungry developers attracted by the collapse of traditional town planning in the face of central dirigisme under John Major years before and Boris Johnson today. Nothing local people can say or do will stop Whitehall demanding that Jane Austen’s Hampshire village of Chawton build 1,200 new houses. Emily Brontë’s romantic Wuthering Heights at Haworth in Yorkshire has been ordered to construct a 14-acre housing estate.
The irony is that such assaults risk destroying precisely the qualities that made the countryside so appealing: that they were stable, quiet and sparsely inhabited in natural surroundings. As the old Metroland ads used to plead: come out to beautiful rural Middlesex. And make it no longer rural, they might as well have added.
The reality is that much of rural southern England, long occupied by the relatively poor, is becoming the home of the relatively rich. The pleasure inherent in country places is being quantified, monetised and sent to market. Just as cities and suburbs follow economic cycles, so now does the country. Locals bewail that “our children cannot afford to live here,” but then so do the residents of almost every inner borough of London. Social housing can do its bit, but cycles are a fact of economic life. The likes of Jeremy Clarkson can reasonably argue that they are not destroying the country, just using it in new ways and enabling new people to enjoy it.
The question is, can the old and the new live at some sort of peace with each other? Can the Chadlingtons cohabit with the Clarksonvilles through this period of disruption, and do so without wrecking the rural beauty and the tranquillity that is the unique selling proposition of the English countryside?
The answer can lie only in restoring clear and balanced local planning, and in harnessing the consent of local people, however “nimby”, to the process. Johnson’s wish to end local development control has infuriated rich and poor alike. It mocks his slogan of “take back control”. People do feel entitled to some right to sovereignty over their immediate environment.
As the Campaign for Rural Britain constantly points out, there is no problem in this. England has no shortage of brownfield housing land and it has a million unused housing permits. There isn’t an obvious reason to consume more countryside, other than that Tory donors seem to make most money building there. But if more people really are to live in rural areas, it will require sensitive and meticulous regulation. That will not come from Whitehall.
Any visitor to rural Ireland or Sicily or Portugal knows what happens when this sort of casual development is allowed free rein. Buildings go up at random. Landscape is spoiled. Nature is irreparably ruined. That is currently the prospect in England. The message of the recent Chesham byelection was that even Tory voters don’t like it. Will the new housing minister, Michael Gove, listen at least to them?