Driving through the south of France this summer I was struck by how badly French amour propre had defended what used to be one of the most beautiful and glamourous parts of the world. It is now littered with fast food joints, tacky hotels, supermarkets, billboards, What had, in the 1970s and 1980s, been remote and charming lanes were now major thoroughfares with big box stores and all the detritus of suburban blight. Why, I wondered, hadn't the French been able to protect the country they love so volubly?
I was glad to get home to Somerset, so much less cluttered and, frankly, more beautiful. At least for the time being. But now I'm starting to worry -- and to wonder whether my question might, one day, be asked of England too.
First Nick Boles announces that an area of countryside bigger than Greater London must be given over to housing. And then because McDonalds, not content with having invaded British towns, is now trying to make inroads into the British countryside too.
Farrington Gurney is a small Somerset village, in the middle of the triangle defined by Bristol, Bath and Wells. In the fourteenth century, it was owned by Sir Thomas de Gurney but he got himself involved in the assassination of Edward II so his estate was confiscated and given to the Duchy of Cornwall. Now it is a functional pleasant place, with a primary school, one of the best farm shops in England, a nice cross-section of new and old houses and even, still, a pub.
Seems an odd place for a McDonald's drive-through doesn't it?
But that's the plan. Although the initial planning application was turned down by Bath and North East Somerset, the company lawyers have come back with a heavy-hitting appeal.
The site McDonalds has applied for lies at the end of the lane that houses the primary school. You can imagine how that makes parents feel about the prospect of having to drive past the smell and allure of Happy Meals every day on their way to and from school. Villagers (of which I'm one) have filed hundreds of complaints against potential noise, smell, traffic - and litter. But who in their right would even contemplate something so ugly and disruptive in a country village?
Having saturated British cities, McDonalds is now on the prowl for nice rural spots where it can capture yet more traffic. With the lure of jobs, it hopes to charm councils and planning authorities with the result that perhaps soon our country lanes could look a lot like those in the U.S.: crammed with fast food outlets and their accompanying rubbish. Give it a few years, erode the greenbelt and soon the difference between town and country could just disappear. Imagine: you might never be far from the sight, smell and sound of a Big Mac and fries.
And if Boles gets his way too, more houses, more people, more customers, more money for McDonalds.
Britain has no difficulty building great and beautiful things: castles, gardens, theatres, orchestras, the National Health Service, the BBC. Why do we have such difficulty protecting them? In our protest against McDonald's, our greatest hope that it is the threat to the traffic that will persuade local authorities. Appeals to the rural environment, apparently, carry less weight. And yet the English landscape is a masterpiece that took millions of people a thousand years to create. You can, of course, argue its economic value in terms of tourism but we ought to be able to cite its social and historic value as a national monument, to be treasured, not destroyed. Because unless we are vigilant and vocal it could take just a few companies, a smidgen of government policy and a few years to wipe it out.