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Are we losing the plot?

Are we losing the plot?

Graeme Willis blogIt is a momentous time for those who care primarily about nature and the health of our environment: the Government has published its long-gestated A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. It is worth pausing a while to take in that 25 year time line. We often talk of the myopia of our politicians, with one eye set on the next election, but the plan, introduced and embraced by the Prime Minister, urges us to think more deeply about what is possible and what might be done differently in a generation’s time and for the next and future generations. The Government’s electoral commitment is to leave the environment in a better state than it found it - and the plan is here to do that. So, let’s praise the ambition of those 25 years and the Government’s will to reach beyond the short-termism of the electoral cycle.

Throughout the plan, the protection and enhancement of our natural environment, nature and, resolutely in CPRE terms, the countryside are central. Much is made too of the value of our ‘natural capital’, our stock of natural resources and the benefits that flow from them to society. Not surprisingly the plan has major goals to use ‘resources from nature more sustainably and efficiently’ and to ‘use and manage land sustainably’. These are welcome. There are strong statements about unsustainable use of peatland, water and fishing practices. All are important. The plan also flags up how much of England is developed at ‘around 11%’ of the land area and how much undeveloped land is built on each year at ‘an average of 17,000 hectares’. This is where it becomes less clear.

What does that figure entail?

Without context this rate of change means little to most of us. In terms of all the land in England, at around 133,000 km2, or 13.3 million hectares, 17,000 hectares a year feels like relatively little. But, put another way, this means building a new London every decade.

Taken over the 25 year life of the plan itself this means 3-4% of our remaining undeveloped land becoming urbanised in some way.

Scroll forward the lifetime – at around 85 years or so – of a person born now and it would mean the doubling of the developed area of England.

Taken as a share of the farmland, the figures we have for the past three years show a loss of over 10,000 hectares each year on average. This too means 1% of our farmland taken every nine years or so, and likely never to be returned to nature. This no doubt will fall mostly on our better farmland around towns and cities, where the pressure to develop is keenest.

Disappointingly, the plan has nothing to say about this rate of change. Despite land being the least renewable natural resource, the plan does not consider using it efficiently. Despite the plan being a statement of where we want to be in 25 years and, at least, a start of how we might get there, it has nothing to say about how much of our land might radically change in nature. And, although it has much to say about the value of our countryside – which we rely on for food and much besides… to store carbon, build biology and soils, filter and store water, provide space for nature and humans to escape into – it does not say what would be lost to the next and future generations if we go on as we are.

To be fair, the plan has commitments to improve the Green Belt and maintain and strengthen protection for ancient woodlands and grasslands, high-risk flood areas and the best farmland. New development is intended to unlock ‘net gain for biodiversity’ and ‘wider natural capital benefits such as flood protection, recreation and improved water and air quality’. Land will be developed but to release net environmental gain elsewhere. Farmland and other undeveloped land will for some time forward need to change: it is undoubtedly true that we need new housing and of the right kind so that those in the direct need can be properly housed and make decent homes. And we need to find land for this housing in the right places to address that need. 

Leaving land for the next generation

But, if this plan is to deliver on its ambitions and stand the test of time then it should measure up to the challenges and be honest about our choices. It’s a poor deal for the next generation if we fudge this issue. Maintaining our precious natural capital can’t just come from gains in what is left, while the area, the physical extent, of nature declines inexorably. There are options to recycle our existing built land better: to reuse empty buildings and derelict places; to make urban areas multifunctional – like nature – producing more food, capturing solar gain, harvesting rainwater, storing carbon and supporting biodiversity; and, ultimately, boosting liveability while minimising environmental footprints.

Where the balance lies between developed and undeveloped may be a political choice, but it is one we need to be more open about. At what point do we decide the loss of land should come to an end? While the plan effectively glides over the issue, the Government does promise to ‘develop a comprehensive set of metrics that we can use to monitor progress’. Let the first one be an indicator of land use: the land that is developed and land that is not and we can take a small step to putting the ‘sustainable’ back into ‘sustainable development’.

At what point do we decide the loss of land should come to an end? 

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