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Rural Tranquillity

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the establishment of an indicator for rural tranquillity; to provide for the protection of rural tranquillity in the planning process; and for connected purposes.

In the past week, I have distributed tranquillity maps to every Member of Parliament in England. I hasten to add, Mr. Speaker, that you were not discriminated against because you are a Scottish Member; nor was I discriminating against the Welsh. It is simply that the Bill would apply only to England—unless a Member of either the Scottish or the Welsh Executive has the wit and intelligence to take up the issue, as I hope one of them will.

The maps that I distributed did something that was both new and importantly different. For the first time ever, they provided a quantified, logically evidenced and robust way of measuring tranquillity across the country. I should pause here to record my thanks to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which, in concert with some heavyweight academics, has done an enormous amount of work to quantify tranquillity and to provide us with a robust and logically sensible evidence base on which the Bill can be built.

Before we become too caught up in pretty tranquillity maps, however, we ought to ensure that we understand precisely what “tranquillity” means. Put simply, it is peace and quiet. It is the ability to find a part of the country that is free from intervention by man. Let me give some examples. If you go out at night and look around, do you see street lights or starlight? If you go out looking for peace and quiet, what do you hear, jumbo jets and juggernauts or birdsong? If you want to find a beautiful view and you go out and lift up your eyes unto the hills, do you in fact see hills, or high rises? If you take a deep breath of fresh air, do you smell wild flowers or the kebab van on the corner? That is what tranquillity is all about, and why it is so important. It is not just about preserving green spaces; it is about the way our country feels. It is about why it is good to be in our country. It is about the quality of life and the quality of our environment, and that is why it is important to preserve it.

It is important also to bear in mind that while there is more tranquillity in the countryside, it is not exclusively a countryside issue. There are significant pockets of tranquillity in our towns and cities as well. Urban parks and suburban gardens are essential green lungs which make our urban environments better to live in than they would otherwise be. They deserve protection just as much as green belts and areas of outstanding natural beauty in the countryside as a whole.

I am not saying, and the Bill is not saying, that everywhere must be tranquil. There are plenty of places that we want to have bright lights and loud music. If we go out on a Friday night to meet our friends, we probably want to go somewhere that has a buzz and an excitement to it. In my constituency, the seafront on Friday and Saturday nights is vibrant and exciting, and full of people enjoying themselves. We do not want to change that, but—particularly if we have had a very good Friday night—on a Saturday morning we may be in search of a place where we can find some tranquillity. It is therefore important for the country to contain both types of place: places that are lively and vibrant, and places where tranquillity exists. We need a Britain where wildlife and nightlife can co-exist.

The crucial point is that tranquillity is fragile. The pace and the hustle and bustle of modern Britain destroy tranquillity; the two cannot coexist.

There are some very startling and frightening statistics on the extent to which tranquillity is on the retreat throughout the country. The statistics on road transport show that that is projected to increase by between 20 per cent. and 30 per cent. in the next eight years. In the last 15 years, air travel has exploded and it is expected to continue rising for many years to come. The worst statistic I saw is that in England alone we are every year concreting over an area of land the size of Leicester. Clearly, we cannot carry on doing that indefinitely. Also, light pollution rose by 24 per cent. between 1993 and 2000, and the sad fact is that in only 11 per cent. of England’s land mass is it now possible to go outside at night and see a sky that is lit only by the moon and stars, as opposed to by man.

What is to be done? The Bill is very simple—and, I hope, the more powerful because of that. It has only two clauses, the first of which says that the Government should report on and publish the results of the measurement of tranquillity, probably along the lines of the system that I have just described which has been put together by the Campaign to Protect Rural England. That will allow us to track tranquillity to see where it is strong and where it is weak and where it is advancing and where it is retreating. Having tracked and measured tranquillity effectively, the second clause is equally simple. It says that the Government should put a duty on planning authorities to protect, preserve and enhance tranquillity in every decision that they take.

The good news is that the Government should be onside on this issue. They have been using the word “tranquillity” in approving tones since as long ago as when the rural White Paper was produced, in 2000; they have mentioned it several times since in many different sorts of official environmental documentation. I therefore hope—even expect—that the Government will be able to support the Bill either by providing it with time or by picking up on this issue and including measures to address it in some of their future legislation. I certainly hope that we will be pushing at an open door, and I encourage Members of all parties to take them at their word: they say that tranquillity is important, so let us give them the chance to act on their words.

If there is only one reason why Members of all parties choose to support the Bill, let it be the following one. I have said that tranquillity is under threat: it is retreating throughout the country. If we do not act now, tranquillity will soon be nothing but a folk memory. All those wonderful quiet places free from human interference that everyone knows of will be gone—all Members probably have places near our homes in our constituencies where we like to go. If for no other reason, we owe it to our children and grandchildren to turn from merely uttering warm words to taking action to preserve tranquillity. If we do not act now, the things that we take for granted today will be denied to them tomorrow. Tranquillity is important, and it is in trouble. It deserves our attention and requires our help and protection. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Penrose, David Taylor, Mr. John Gummer, Mr. Nick Hurd, Norman Baker, Derek Wyatt, Mr. Philip Dunne, Mr. John Whittingdale, Mr. Frank Field, Kelvin Hopkins and Jeremy Wright.

Rural Tranquillity

John Penrose accordingly presented a Bill to provide for the establishment of an indicator for rural tranquillity; to provide for the protection of rural tranquillity in the planning process; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 18 May, and to be printed [Bill 73].