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Artillery Row

Betraying the green belt

The proposals to develop and build on the West Yorkshire moors is an act of vandalism which should be abhorrent to all who identify as conservative

In light of recent calls to hack up the green belt, filling it with ugly little cul-de-sacs of poorly built investment opportunities, the knives are now out for the wuthering heights of the West Yorkshire moors. A frankly pantomimic act of cultural, social, and environmental vandalism, the very notion should be abhorrent to any Conservative government who understands what the word “conservative” means.

These are the moors that thrilled and inspired the Brontë sisters throughout their lives and work, and which still (for now) act as a living, thriving conduit into the minds and world of those hugely significant writers. The extraordinary proposals are to obliterate an ancient right of way, with upwards of 150 developments sprawling across the centuries-old rolling meadows to create a brand-new estate.

There are many alternatives to this crass, short-sighted ugliness

This is not the first attack on the green belt in Bradford. Just a decade ago proposals came to build little under 50,000 new homes in the wider area, seeing the formerly 2000-strong village of Haworth increase by at least 600, and the nearby villages of Oakworth and Oxenhope by no less than 400 each. These are rural, historic villages — organically developed communities. The rushed forcing of hundreds upon hundreds of mass-built, copy and paste properties permanently obscures them; the sudden swelling of incomer residents wreaks havoc on local infrastructure, gouging out the experiential and cultural centres of the villages. Another walk known as the Brontë Way has already fallen out of use due to the overdevelopment, which has seen the first 15 miles of the landscape lost to urbanised housing, tarmac, concrete and car exhaust.

“Ah, but technically this isn’t green belt!” Bradford Council have squealed. Technically not, but only because of a loophole which has seen them approve it for development in the past. By the face value meaning of “green belt”, historically unspoiled land that has never been built on, this is the very definition of the stuff. These sorts of projects betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the landscape and its worth (both cultural and environmental), but also of the nature of rural community and of how to facilitate its organic growth.

Housing development schemes over the last 30 years have been responsible for the destruction of historic communities on a Boudiccan scale, and this latest proposal is for the obliteration of a stunning and important area of natural beauty which holds an unparalleled position in British culture. We have to start learning the lessons of the recent past, even if they go against presumptions we’ve spent decades investing in. The management-speak of the age refers to this carving up of unspoilt landscape for the inevitable enrichment of a few property barons as “green belt deletion”, a frankly psychopathic turn of phrase.

Things aren’t just grim up North. Take Jones Hill Wood, a glorious site of ancient woodland that inspired Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, and which has since been strapped to the increasingly nonsensical altar of HS2, apparently victim of either dodgy, back-room dealings, institutional incompetence, or some heady cocktail of the lot. A huge swathe of its ancient trees was ripped to death at the start of last year, Saruman apparently as project manager, before the bunny huggers leapt into the breach. They camped out for months to delay the destruction (good old Swampy amongst them, later charged with aggravated trespass). The inevitable eviction by years’ close saw them finally dispersed.

There are always more important things than building back blander

Works were then paused again while a judicial review questioned whether or not Natural England had been entirely correct in allowing the destruction of a habitat confirmed as being home to Britain’s rarest bat, the Barbastelle (on the verge of extinction). Natural England decided that, of course, their priority must remain with the bigger picture of private financial interests over anything so petty as the environmental well-being, culture and quality of life of countless current and future generations, let alone the extinction of an entire species. So, sod the bats and tear up the trees. They patted Saruman on his bony back and wished him the best of luck in his destruction.

The judicial review was thrown out, of course, in spite of tireless, uphill work from the activist Mark Keir (who vows to appeal). The works are back on. The ancient woodland that’s home to a species on the verge of death and which connects any dawdling visitor with the lived experience of one of our most loved literary minds — part of the internationally valued Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, no less — will be destroyed so that a train line to take people a bit faster to jobs that they won’t need to commute to anymore because of Zoom, can take this specific route and not a slightly different one.

We expect this sort of thing from the usual suspects, but why are Natural England so keen to be complicit? I’ve read through the justifications — and its wilfully naive nonsense. The people who have made this decision know full well that the mitigation measures they’ve approved are paltry. They know the odds of the bats re-roosting are miniscule, that the chances of the ancient woodland magically regrowing if they move some of the soil to somewhere else are slim (a process called translocation, no sure thing). They know how much will be lost, and how little will be gained. They know that legally this should not go ahead, and morally they should not allow it. And yet.

The same is true of the West Yorkshire moors. Perhaps, if we want to be optimistic, we can tell ourselves that surely they don’t intend to go through with such wanton barbarism? No, surely they’re only putting such a brutal scheme out to consultation so that when they put a more moderate one out later, the one they really intended in the first place, it will seem like a magnanimous gesture of compromise. Surely they mean it when they say that the trashy new builds will be of good design and add to local character? We can tell ourselves this, but we know it is a lie. We know it just as Natural England know it. And yet.

“But Brice,” I hear you snort, “people have to live somewhere! Don’t you know there’s a housing crisis? You’re the bunny hugger here, you bunny hugger, get a job!” Yes, of course people have to live somewhere, but there are ludicrous miles of empty property being left to degrade; developers who buy just to board up for years so they can justify destroying it as derelict. There are towers and towers of empty luxury flats across London gathering dust in the investment portfolios of Arab princes, Chinese billionaires and Russian mafiosos who’ll never see the addresses they own.

There’s brownfield after brownfield just begging to be reused before the green belt is forever lost.

There are beautiful examples of architectural revival and garden village schemes like Welborne which seek to forge a better way, which could revolutionise everything if we’d only let them. When all is said and done, there are many, many alternatives to this crass, short-sighted ugliness. When the wuthering depths have finally been plumbed and when all beauty has been crushed under tarmac, we’ll finally admit to ourselves and each other that there were always more important things than building back blander.

And yet.

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