Major blow is struck in battle of country v city

Campaigners claim an important victory over the British government after protestors force parliament to table a debate on plans for a high-speed rail link.

Despite fierce government resistance, the planned £32 billion rail link connecting London to Birmingham and the north will be granted a full parliamentary hearing on 13 October following more than 100,000 signatures demanding a public debate.

The staunchest champions of both the rail link and proposals to relax strict laws that restrict development in the UK, are two of the most powerful men in government, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne. They desperately need ways to boost the UK's flagging economy.

But many in their own party are now set to join the debate on the other side, fearing a disastrous collapse of support in Tory rural heartlands. They will be joined by many Liberal and Labour backbenchers.

The row started with the local countryside. The rail link will slice through the Chilterns, a legally protected area of outstanding natural beauty; through the gardens of Hartwell House, a National Trust property recorded in the Domesday Book; and past Edgecote Hall, used as the setting for the BBC's Pride and Prejudice. If this is allowed, say protestors, what next?

But now it has widened to include the business and economic case. The government believes that the rail link will generate employment, economic growth and spread prosperity from south to north. It says that it will deliver £2 of benefits for every £1 spent.

Opponents deny this and point out that a fortune is being spent to shave only 20 minutes off the time from London to Birmingham and that poorer people don't use trains anyway. Last week they were helped by a political blunder from the government's transport secretary. Fares had become so expensive, he said, that trains were a 'rich man's toy'.

Powerful supporters are joining them. The Economist magazine came out last week alongside nearly all the British countryside and conservation charities and a growing list of big names such as the presenter Chris Tarrant and the writer Bill Bryson.

Country and City

This goes back to one of the oldest debates of civilisation. The great literary critic Raymond Williams wrote a seminal study* about the ideas of peace, innocence and virtue associated with the country, compared to the ideas of noise, commerce and ambition associated with the city. For many people this remains a clear distinction.

But Williams concluded that in fact the distinction is false. The country contains its fare share of ambition and vice and the city contains much virtue and peace. Great literature shows that country and city are interdependent. Developers and countryside campaigners should be on the same side.

*The Country and The City by Raymond Williams (Oxford University Press, 1973)

You Decide

  1. How would you impress a visitor from Mars – show him your local countryside or your nearest great city?
  2. Which has done more good for your country – unspoilt nature or industrious humanity?

Activities

  1. Write two 'word clouds' side by side – one with ten words you associate with the countryside and one with ten words you associate with building and development
  2. Research and write a tactful letter to the owner of Edgecote Hall explaining why you are going to build a high-speed rail link through their land.

Some People Say...

“People always resist change before it happens and embrace it once it is over.”

What do you think?

Q & A

It's not just the rail link is it?
No. There's a wider row about planning which will affect the future of the British countryside involving the biggest shakeup of the planning system for 60 years.
What exactly?
It centres on a controversial new proposal that will make it easier for developers to overrule community attempts to protect their land. The new policy says that 'most green areas or open spaces' will no longer qualify for protection.
How will developers justify their plans?
They will have to show evidence that their buildings and constructions will meet local needs and make a contribution to the local economy.
So it's about money?
The government says it is about quality of life for all, rather than about just financial considerations. Opponents say that developers will make huge profits.

Word Watch

Staunchest
from the word 'staunch' which means firm, unswerving and steadfast.
Chilterns
The Chiltern Hills stretch through four counties north of London. Gently rolling chalk downs covered in beech woodland, they are a haven for wildlife and flowers.
The Economist
a weekly magazine founded in 1843 and a website now represent one of the most successful and powerful publications in the world. It covers serious world news (not just economics) and champions free trade and free markets.

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