It is some while since I have flown north across the British Isles. Wearing my farmer’s hat, I was struck by the fact that the fastest expanding crop, particularly across the southeast, is housing.
Having flown to Scotland and back last Friday, I was shocked to see the expanding belts of houses creeping out into the countryside from every town, village and settlement from my bird’s eye view.
It was clear that these houses have replaced ancient woods and pastures, not as we are led to believe brown field sites.
In Anglo-Saxon England substantial parts of the country remained uncultivated and sparely populated. Forests were extensive in the Weald, in Suffolk, Essex and Middlesex and in a broad belt from the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire through Oxfordshire to Gloucestershire including the Welsh Borders.
Kings hunted in these forests with no restrictions to what the population might want to do there being imposed. This all changed with the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066. William the Conqueror brought with him from the continent a Frankish legal system concerning hunting. The ‘beasts of the forests’; principally deer and wild boar, became the property of the crown. Forest law was imposed on large tracts of land that included the Anglo-Saxon forests but also areas like Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Peaks, and other uplands with few trees where Forest Law not Common Law held sway. It is interesting that even a thousand years ago bad undemocratic policies were being imported from Europe!
Under King John (1199-1216) one of the grievances of his barons was their exclusion from hunting in the Royal Forests, resulting in the forests becoming more fragmented and smaller as deer parks were introduced.
Forest Law was again introduced after 1635 when growing trees for timber, not hunting became the primary objective in what remained of the Royal Parks. Despite what some may consider injustices and imperfections, it is likely the Royal Forests and Forest Law slowed down the conversion of land so protecting it from more intensive uses, be it agriculture or modern forestry. Keeping the land uncultivated and more or less wild has contributed to the preservation of ancient oaks in England.
Today it is not agriculture, which is threatening these magnificent woodlands and ancient oaks, it is housing. Why exactly the government is hell bent on building thousands of houses across our diminishing rural landscape is unclear. Who exactly are they for?
The latest threat in our part of Sussex is coming from Eton College which owns substantial farmland in East Chiltington. They have applied for planning permission to build 3,000 houses on 500acres of farmland between Plumpton Green and South Chailey, turning this rural idyl at the foot of the South Downs into a major urban settlement.
The audacity of this application is staggering. We can only hope that those tasked with considering this matter will throw the plan out lock stock and barrel.
The fact that the local roads most of which are narrow B roads, could not cope with the increased traffic, the local primary and secondary schools are already overflowing, and the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath cannot handle the existing population, should surely raise alarm bells.
Even in normal years there is a shortage of water, and the sewage treatment plants are struggling to cope with the current population despite having been upgraded during the past 18 months.
This proposal by Eton College has needless to say brought together the whole local community including residents, farmers, and councillors across the political divide with no exceptions. Our MP Maria Caulfield said: “The Eton College proposal is completely unacceptable, and I have offered to call this in with the Secretary of State”.
At a time when city and town centres are dying on their feet as office use declines, our building strategy needs urgent consideration.
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