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Compulsory purchase rears its ugly head again

Friday 20 February 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard sounds a warning about two ugly words which, 50 years ago, sounded the knell of doom for thousands of farmers and landowners - and which are now back in the current Government lexicon

THIS has been a fairly quiet week in the countryside, as thousands of farmers, landowners and rural business people are still sitting down trying to absorb the new agricultural subsidy rules, but watch out in the next few days for an unexploded bomb.

On Tuesday, a complex and little understood bill will come before Parliament for one of its crucial last stages before becoming law. It has been largely overlooked by the media in general but its very title should ring alarm bells for country folk.

It is called the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill and it is part of John Prescott's campaign to drastically change the planning laws to allow the building of hundreds of thousands of new homes that are said to be needed, mainly in the south east of England.

The planning system has long needed a shake up - it has been for decades a gold mine for lawyers, government inspectors and various consultants who have made not-so-small fortunes by dragging out the appeal system to the point of collapse.

Out to grass – but where will he go?

But it is those two words "compulsory purchase" that fill me with foreboding - because we have been here before and it was a time of nightmare for tens of thousands of farmers and landowners who were literally robbed by the state in the years after World War 11.

I was a cub reporter back in the 1950s and one of my jobs was to cover local council meetings, most of which were stunningly boring. But one subject guaranteed to produce fireworks was when compulsory purchase cropped up.

In 1945, you see, the nation faced a chronic housing shortage and the Labour Government decided to meet it by covering millions of acres of farmland with sprawling council estates.

Trouble was, land was in short supply too and farmers didn't want to sell. So the Government simply gave local councils the right to acquire it compulsorily - at a fraction of its market value.

Tens of thousands of farmers, particularly those of the fringes of cities and big towns, were given coppers for land which, in today's terms, was worth millions. The bitter irony of this is that, today, many of those council estates are slums.

Some have already been bulldozed. Drive past one, and you will often see large, once desirable, gardens filled with wrecked cars, abandoned household appliances and knee high litter. This was once good agricultural land virtually stolen from the men and women who had husbanded it, often for generations.

On Tuesday, the highly respected Council for the Protection of Rural England is to issue a virulent assault on this new bill, demanding that the Government build in a long list of safety measures that will protect our countryside from another such disaster.

I wish the CPRE well. But this is again a Labour government and the bill is the probably the swansong for John Prescott, who since his very first days in office has shown utter contempt for country folk and the land that they look after for the benefit of the nation as a whole.

All the pundits say that old Two Jags will be put out to grass if Labour win the next general election. If this bill goes through without many of the changes the CPRE is demanding, his will face a major problem: where will he find any grass to go to?

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