Here is a confession: I find a perverse pleasure in reading things I shouldn't for sanity's sake. Asinine newspaper columns with illiberal and Blairite attitudes, I soak them up. Likewise, it was with a furtive delight that my clammy fingers rustled the glossy pages of the latest Oxfordshire bulletin from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England.
They sound such a nice organisation. Don't they have that warmly bearded American with a jovial smile as their President? And don't we all love the countryside. I certainly do and I could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the CPRE on some issues, like the farce that is Labour's misnamed eco-towns, if only the CPRE weren't so damned illiberal.
I'm a liberal because I believe in social justice, for our generation and future ones. That means both taking care of our environment and working hard to overcome the real crisis that exists in affordable housing. These can be in tension, they can need balancing -- but the CPRE, it seems, won't for a minute accept that to be true.
The CPRE are storm-troopers for the Green Belt, not just as a concept but in its every inch as it presently stands. And so, they are glum at the prospect of wind turbines, they are sour-faced at Oxford's Park and Rides, and they are certainly bitterly opposed to any building projects near the city.
They claim that 'all the houses needed [for Oxford] could be built in the City itself on already identified development land.' Let's leave aside the fact that this seriously underestimates the depth of the problem we face. Elsewhere in their bulletin, CPRE celebrate the fact that a meadow in Oxford, near my ward -- Warneford Meadow -- has been saved from development by the curious legal ruse of declaring it a Town Green. Good for the Meadow which would, indeed, be an unwise place to build, but let's remember that that was one of the areas of 'identified development land'. We do need the countryside around the city but we also need green spaces in the city. Is the CPRE really ready to thrust its arm down the city's throat and pull out its green lungs? Their thinking simply does not add up on this.
But, I read, building an urban extension to relieve Oxford's housing crisis is not just unnecessary; it's apparently part of a conspiracy. The CPRE reveals the dastardly truth in their bulletin: 'the City Council's strategy is not to solve the housing problem, but to provide more houses in order to enable commercial development.' In other words, the City -- damn them -- wants to see economic growth. Quite what the CPRE's alternative to sustainable economic growth is, they don't say. I can't avoid sensing that the CPRE would like to stop the world and get off, and, in that eventuality, I'd gladly hold the door open from them.
Protect rural England, yes, we should. But we won't do that with a narrow-minded, inflexible approach which takes no account of the human beings we want to be able to enjoy the countryside. Lord, save our countryside from the CPRE.