As I write, the ‘Infrastructure Bill 2014’ current sits in its committee stage before the House of Lords (next due before the Lords on 14 October 2014). You may or may not have heard of it. Its best known component is to introduce the right for companies to ‘frack’ under your home, without first seeking your permission.
There is however an even more insidious aspect to this bill that could undo decades of progress in terms of the formation of our national parks, access to our landscape and the protection of our wildlife.
The intention of this bill is clear. Its primary purpose is to ease the way for corporations and developers to gain unhindered access to any part of our land that they wish to use for development or to frack for shale gas. As a landscape photographer, lover of nature, supporter of public ownership of our nation’s assets and access rights to our cherished landscapes, this bill causes me deep concern.
It is beyond dispute that we need more homes (although an awful lot could be done to assist local authorities bring empty houses back into use) and infrastructure to service those homes. It is however the nature of this bill that shows flagrant disregard for public ownership, public access and local consultation.
Local councils will be ordered to give over 90% of their brownfield land to the Housing and Communities Agency (HCA). Brownfield sites are previously developed sites that have become vacant, but could be reused and include parks, playing fields, allotments, woodlands, public facilities and village greens.
The bill states that, “The Secretary of State may at any time make one or more schemes for the transfer to the HCA of designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body.”
It continues,”These transfers are to take effect irrespective of any requirement to obtain a person’s consent or concurrence, any liability in respect of a contravention of another requirement, or any other interference with an interest or right, which would otherwise apply.”
This bill will take away any local power of decision over land use and pave the way for publically held land to be transferred to the HCA, who can extinguish existing protection and rights of way, such as access under the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000, possibly even protection for Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, grant permission for new roads and buildings and sell off land as it sees fit.
Any private company that buys the land will no longer be subject to local planning regulations and consultation. The Secretary of State will be able to grant to any development without the involvement of locally elected members or council departments such as planning , simply by consulting a panel of as little as two people.
In short, we could well see our national parks, playgrounds, village greens, woodland, allotments or any other publically owned facility, sold off to private companies to build on, frack, quarry, lay railway lines or do whatever they like. One thing can be taken as a certainty, we will have no say.
As for fracking, that is another matter entirely which would need an extended essay in its own right. Let’s just say that it would be a disaster for our national parks, countryside or communities to have this nightmare imposed upon them. It represents no cure at all for our energy security or economy, will not bring about any appreciable long-term boost for jobs, will not lower energy prices and will be an environmental disaster in terms of its effect on wildlife, water supplies and air quality. I urge you to go and find information on fracking for yourself and not take my word on this matter.
Rights of access for ordinary people to some of our best loved landscapes could be lost. It would be as if the Kinder Trespass had never happened. The lifetime of hard work by Tom Stephenson, who’s commitment and passion led to the opening of the Pennine Way, undone. Our national parks just a fond memory (massive budget cuts have already seen the Peak District National Park Authority forced to put many of its best loved locations up for lease or sale)and the long fought for ‘Right to Roam’ extinguished. We could well see a return to the days when ordinary people were excluded from their own landscape.
The Infrastructure Bill represents the biggest land-grab since the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When George Osborne stated that green spaces would be protected, he meant the estates of his wealthy friends. Lands belonging to the Crown are conveniently exempt.
What do Labour have to say about this? Surprisingly little. Surely we can rely on Labour to champion the rights of common people? Unfortunately not, they have no current plans to oppose the bill. It seems that the transformation of the Labour Party from its socialist roots to neoliberal corporatists is complete.
So there we have it, all nicely stitched up for a foregone conclusion. Private companies win and the rights of ordinary people are trampled over once again. Once these measures are passed into law, they will be very hard to reverse, even if the will from any future government to do so is there and all current indications point to that being unlikely.
What can we do to stop this? In all probability, not an awful lot but we must try. You can write to your MP or councillors and express the strength of your opposition. With next year’s general election on the horizon, your local politicians will be keen to gain your support, especially in marginal constituencies. Let them know how much of an important issue this is. You can get involved in your local community groups, rambler’s groups or outdoor sports groups and spread the word, or get involved in your local anti-fracking group. But most important of all, keep the spirit of Benny Rothman, Tom Stephenson and all of those men and women who fought for our right to protect and access our beautiful landscape alive!