13 February 2023

Clarkson’s Farm is a rallying cry to rural Yimbys


The latest series of Clarkson’s Farm really highlights what a dangerous absurdity this country’s discretionary planning system really is. But might our eponymous hero be the man to do something about it?

For readers who missed the show (and the drama in the papers), the central plot of this season is Clarkson’s attempt to set up a farm-to-table restaurant at his wildly-popular Diddly Squat Farm.

The case is simple: various economic pressures, not least the oligopsony enjoyed by the big supermarkets, mean that many of his products simply can’t be sold to retail at a viable margin. Cutting out the middle-man and selling at hospitality prices changes the game; he can’t sell produce ‘anything approximating to a profit’ without it.

‘So what?’, you might think. Clarkson is not always the world’s most sympathetic figure; indeed, much of the show’s humour hinges on the fact that he is a rich dilettante who can absorb the costs of his whimsies and pratfalls. As one local resident declares at a village hall Q&A: ‘You personally do not need an income!’

But the great virtue of Clarkson’s Farm is that the star casts a revealing light on the situation of his friends and neighbours, ordinary farmers who don’t have celebrity and millions to fall back on. As David Attenborough is to the oceans, so Clarkson is to British agriculture.

The long shadow of the state is so omnipresent that it’s almost a character in its own right. When Clarkson tries to deposit soil waste from the site of his new barn in an abandoned quarry elsewhere on the farm, up pops his long-suffering agent to check, without expectation, if he bothered to acquire a Waste Exemption Licence. ‘There’s a soil police?’, asks Clarkson, who by this point has no right to be surprised. ‘There’s an every sort of police.’

Having decided to branch into cattle, our hero must likewise contend with the risk of Bovine TB. The main vector for this disease is badgers. But he can do nothing about the badgers (unlike other pests, such as deer or foxes) because they are one of the most protected animals in Britain. The laws, one farmer points out, were laid down to ban badger-baiting, which is not a problem anymore.

But this being England, where few enough laws ever leave the statute book and no greater love hath urban voters than rural pests, the regulations remain, causing huge losses for dairy farmers and much preventable slaughter of cattle.

A restaurant is a lifeline, and not just for Clarkson. Surprised that the cattle he has laid in could feed his anticipated 60 covers for just two days, he reaches out to his neighbours and proposes to bring them in on the project: a cooperative, sourcing everything locally and sharing the profits – and creating fifty new jobs, too.

They are, understandably, enthusiastic. One dairy farmer, grappling with yet another TB outbreak, reveals that the Diddly Squat shop is the only thing keeping her business afloat – and that’s accounting for the fact that she doesn’t draw a wage. The whole scene is proof that exceptions exist to Adam Smith’s famous dictum that: ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’

In lieu of a conspiracy, we get a cooperative. It’s a risk: the costs of complying with the planning regime are fixed, but the outcome is not; the agent also says it will lose Diddly Squat over £80,000 in subsidies.

But it’s a good plan, diversifying the business as farmers are repeatedly told to do. All it needs is planning permission.

Reader, you don’t need to have seen a single second of the show to guess how this goes. Had it been written by a YIMBY to skewer the current system, it could not have been more heavy-handed.

Clarkson and his agent go to painstaking lengths to square each of the innumerable stakeholders, and despite railing against the absurdity of needing sign-off from the police to open a restaurant, they eventually get nearly everyone on board. The only exceptions are a rich neighbour, who has hired a London barrister to advance an absurd claim that Clarkson intends to pave an area equivalent to half the acreage of his farm, and, inevitably, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, who object to the additional lighting – which had, of course, been demanded by the police.

Armed with a proposal which has received the green light from everyone else he was required to consult, Clarkson heads off to West Oxfordshire District Council. And loses.

All the time and expense spent in appeasing nearly every stakeholder counted for nothing. Despite the pleas of a small minority of committee members to think about jobs and the economy, the CPRE’s light pollution complaint was uppermost on the minds of the majority. ‘I didn’t stay up until half ten last night watching The Sky at Night for nothing’, declares one.

Others lay on thick concerns about the impact on an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, despite the forlorn protestations of one councillor that until you get quite close to the farm you can’t actually see it. One stresses the paramount importance of preserving ‘tranquillity’, a priority which militates against any economic development whatsoever.

For good measure, a planning officer turns out to have put the neighbour’s absurd lie about the scale of the proposals front-and-centre in the report. We get a shot of the man himself; he looks comfortably retired. No reason for the health of the local economy to concern him overmuch.

Clarkson being Clarkson, of course, the battle doesn’t end there. But the whole spectacle highlights the extent to which a comfortably-off, time-rich (and one suspects, disproportionately retired) cohort can use the planning system, and local councillors elected on risible turnouts, to turn what could be a thriving area into an unofficial museum of rural life.

In a different time, or place, Diddly Squat Farm would have been recognised as a boon to a small rural community. For all his faults, the owner clearly cares deeply about his neighbours and his new vocation. A successful restaurant would boost local producers, and all the increased traffic could lead to yet more opportunities, more chances to set up local businesses and pay good wages.

But that would mean more change, and it is clear that for the incumbents, that is a downside. ‘People are blocking what was once a quiet village that was not designed for so much traffic’, complains one resident, overlooking the fact that the village was not ‘designed’ at all. It grew up because people needed it; every home stands on what was once an unspoiled field.

We know how this dynamic ends: with the grotesque nonsense of residents who have strangled the local economy and priced out young families campaigning, as in Hovingham, to save a school with no children in it.

Perhaps that’s what the whole community really wants. But the current setup systemically amplifies the voices of noisy minorities. So if Clarkson and his allies don’t like the fate of their businesses and families being decided on a show of other people’s hands, they should do something about it.

It’s time for a new show: Clarkson’s Party, in which our hero rallies all those who want live in a community with a future, sets up a suitably hyper-local party – the West Oxfordshire Liberation Front, perhaps – and takes the council head-on, at the ballot box.

Why not? There are plenty of places in deep England where the local Residents Association is a power in the land, even at county level. His wealth and profile are rare weapons with which to take on a district-level political machine. 

Moreover, Clarkson himself clearly grasps the broader issues. His show is already rallying the viewing public. And his concerns clearly cut across party lines: ‘I can’t believe I’m about to say this’, says the youngest councillor on the committee, shaking her head, ‘but I agree with everything Jeremy Clarkson said.’

And even if it didn’t work, such a programme could cast the same useful light on the inner workings of local government as Clarkson’s Farm has on farming. That there are plenty living under that rock who won’t want it lifted is all the more reason to do it.

It is time to test whether or not wealthy litigants and district councillors really speak for West Oxfordshire, or whether the community is hungry for something different: for local produce, for fairer prices, for more opportunities. Hungry like the W.O.L.F.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.