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It's time to stop listening to the men in hard hats. Norfolk doesn't need all these new magnolia houses

PUBLISHED: 12:09 10 May 2019 | UPDATED: 16:11 10 May 2019

Norfolk won't look like this anywhere for much longer, Keith Skipper fears

Norfolk won't look like this anywhere for much longer, Keith Skipper fears

Archant

Keith Skipper says our beloved Norfolk is at risk from urban sprawl and it's time to stop swallowing the 'build for prosperity' mantra without question

Norfolk has been my precious planet home for three-quarters of a century.

Okay, a mere blink of a rheumy eye in the great scheme of things. However, alien forces inflicting so much environmental and social damage on one of the solar system's more blessed plots must not pass unnoticed.

To give it all a bit of local perspective, let me recall the wise words of Great-Grandad Horry Horkey in 1946 as he made a half of mild last all evening in the snug of Ye Olde Gathered Inn: "If each before his doorstep sweeps, the village will be clean".

Localism at its most effective. Collective responsibility to the fore. Rebuilding and safeguarding family and community strengths. Taking pride in where you live. Dewin' diffrunt and resisting massive change, especially when it blatantly puts profits ahead of people.

Well, over 70 years after that homely little sermon, my native county Is being forced to admit those old values are being swept away on a tide of excessive development buoyed by a potent mixture of naivety and greed. Too many residents, old and new, simply believe the "build for prosperity" prophets in hard hats.

It's no longer a case of sizing up city, town and village outskirts to prompt cries of "tatty round the edges". Norfolk, besieged by powerful field eaters encouraged by a ridiculously compliant planning system and obliging local landowners and farmers, now has to accept it's much more a raucous chorus of "hideously overblown!"

Ribbon development has been gnawing away at vital character and space for most of the time I've been mardling and writing about Norfolk since leaving school in 1962. A visit to any of our towns now underlines a growing impression that sprawl is readily accepted as inevitable.

Places like Martham, Mattishall, Mulbarton and Mundesley may call themselves villages but betray many symptoms of towns losing track of once-distinctive shape and identity. They have put on too much weight too quickly. We who remember trimmer figures shake our heads in deep disappointment.

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Perhaps the most provocative current example of bloated ambitions way beyond genuine local provision is unfolding in the seaside village of Caister, once memorably described to me as "Great Yarmouth's saucy little sister". Some could argue she's catching up fast …

Already straggling in too many directions for comfort, Caister is being urged to welcome another major development of over 700 houses, a primary school and shops on agricultural land beyond the village's "barrier" bypass.

It's already been dubbed "Magnolia Gardens" and hailed as "a natural extension" to this coastal community. I suspect those behind the scheme may have a slightly different meaning for "natural" than any number of Caister diehards or Norfolk fundamentalists alarmed at the flaunting of such a brand of poetic licence.

Then again, it's hardly surprising to find it flourishing after years of getting away with highly dubious interpretations of selling labels like "affordable", "sustainable" and "desirable".

Deck them out with artists' impressions of idyllic scenes full of trees, flowers, pram-pushing mothers, generous play areas and ne're a sign of litter or revving cars … and there's Paradise Pastures.

In the light of this trend for taking linguistic liberties to give all kinds of development more instant appeal, it may be worth starting a campaign to redefine old friends "countryside" and "rural". They've both put on several extra layers of meaning in places where traditions have been trampled over by radical alterations.

The mid-Norfolk of my youth saw virtually every family clinging to close connections with the land, some of them sinking deep into the county's past. Few of those roots remain in a world where the prairie and lone ranger in a cab have taken over from the meadow and a posse of country thoroughbreds.

The farmer's status in the community has diminished alongside dependence on him for employment and shelter. Mechanisation has torn down history's hedgerows. Meanwhile, advertising agencies pour out rural goodness, rustic freshness and Mummerzet magic until it comes over the top of all those green wellies.

"Escape to the Country" may carry far more clout than it should for a television programme chipped out of estate agents' dreams. But it feeds a comforting illusion of a green and pleasant land ready to embrace anyone who needs a refreshing change.

Just be ready for the big sobering question on arrival: "Which planet are you on, then?"

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