Concreting over the facts

That's enough handwringing about 'the end of the countryside': the vast majority of Britain is greenfield, and it's likely to stay that way.

Britain could lose most of its traditional countryside in just a generation, the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) warned on 8 September. Apparently plans to build new homes threaten to concrete over the countryside.

The CPRE’s fears are shared by many. Not just the Daily Mail and the Tory shires, but Urban Taskforce chairman Richard Rogers and Guardianistas like Tristram Hunt and Ros Coward are up in arms about the threat to Britain’s countryside.

But is there really any danger of concreting over the countryside? The answer is no. Just do the maths.

Few people will believe it when you tell them, but only 12 per cent of the UK is built up, whereas fully three-quarters is farmland. The reason that they do not believe you is partly to do with the psychology of perception, and partly to do with deeply held fears. We perceive the UK as overwhelmingly a built-up country, because almost all of us live in built-up areas. The country that we move around in, nine-tenths of the time, is concreted over. But that does not mean that that is all there is. If you fly over England you will see that vast stretches of it are green: eighty-eight per cent of it, in fact.

More profoundly, the belief that concrete is swallowing up the countryside arises out of our social attitudes. The countryside stands for virgin nature, untouched by human hand (which is ironic, considering it is entirely the product of agricultural development). The town, by contrast, stands for the artificial. As the old saying goes: God made the country, man made the town.

Our fears for the countryside are a fantastic projection of an ideological attitude that sees rural England as the crucible of all that is worthwhile. A sense that society is uncontrollable and dangerous makes us all want to ‘wander lonely as a cloud’. And valuable as the respite of the countryside is, it is the centres of human habitation that are truly creative.

So strong is the pre-cognate sentiment that the countryside is being eaten up by the town that few people will stop to consider the proportions involved. You could double - yes, double - the size of Britain’s built-up areas and still leave three quarters of the land area as countryside. Instead of 12 per cent built up, you could have 24 per cent built up, and still leave 76 per cent undeveloped.

And if that does not sound like a positive goal, think about this: it would be impossible to double the built-up area of the UK, even if you wanted to.

Imagine adding not just a second London, but a second Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow…in fact, a second of every single town and city. That would still leave three quarters of the UK undeveloped. But there simply is not the concrete, nor bricks, nor labour, available for such a construction. And in any event, the population of Britain is not going to double, so there is no need to put even a small dent in the available countryside.

Listening to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, anyone would think that the government is mounting an exercise to build 60million new homes. But the truth is that it is not even threatening to build four million new homes. The rate at which this government has built new homes is not even enough to replace the old homes.

And that is a great pity. Why? Because a great amount of land that was once dedicated to farming is no longer needed. Increased yields and farming surpluses mean that we get much more from much less land. That land ought to be available for new building. Instead, the planning system, and the government’s stupid commitment to build primarily on already developed land, means that it will all be turned to national parks, wilderness and golf courses.

Those are not bad things, of course. But the facts are that there is a great deal of land available to expand the area of human habitation, which would in itself be a good thing.

James Heartfield is a director of Audacity.org.

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