The myth of “concreting over the countryside”

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has good intentions – there is no doubt about that – but often they directly contradict themselves. While the CPRE often calls for affordable housing in rural areas, it has this week objected to new Government proposals that would make it easier to convert farm buildings into housing.

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All this used to be fields… ( Some rights reserved by ☺ Lee J Haywood)

A spokesman says the plans “will mean housing popping up in unsuitable locations in the remote countryside. And it’s not just the housing but the garages, sheds, lighting and fences that will come with them that will destroy the character of rural areas.” It appears wrong-headed to oppose the use of existing (and I am sure often derelict) barns, workshops and other outbuildings for housing, while asking for rural affordable housing to be delivered…where? On Greenfield sites? There are few Brownfield sites in rural areas that can be used for housing. Surely converting dilapidated farm buildings into new homes would only enhance the character of rural areas?

But this feeds into a much wider issue that has held back the delivery of new homes for decades. Every time a new development is proposed on a Greenfield / Green Belt site in the countryside, the cries of “greedy developers, concreting over the countryside” or causing endless “urban sprawl” quickly drown out the calls for new homes and affordable housing. While the younger generation find themselves unable to get on the housing ladder, the campaigners write their objection letters from spacious family homes with large gardens, many of which were built by “greedy developers” on Greenfield / Green Belt sites prior the boom in house prices that began in the 1990s.

The reality of course is this: the British countryside has not been concreted over, it is not being concreted over, and it will not be concreted over – even if the Government embarks on a house building program to rival the post-war effort (unlikely of course). In the UK, around 80% of us live in towns and cities. In terms of what has actually been built on, the statistics issued by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment reveal some clear facts:

  • 93% of the UK has not been built on.
  • Of the 7% which is classified as urban, over 50% is green space – parks, playing fields, allotments.
  • Almost a fifth of the 7% functions as domestic gardens.
  • Nearly 7% of the urban 7% is made up of rivers, lakes, canals and reservoirs.
  • Overall, almost 80% of urban areas are actually non-developed, whether that is preserved natural environments or man made.
  • Therefore, the proportion of the UK’s landscape that is actually “concreted over” is approximately 2.3%.

Of course, one can say lies, damned lies and statistics, but this does illuminate the misrepresentation at the heart of the campaigns against new homes that strangle the debate and have contributed to the housing crisis that we now face. This is without exploring the reality of rural Britain – that it is an industrial landscape formed by intensive farming and food production. There are few completely natural and undeveloped areas of the UK.

Those who are lucky enough to own homes in rural and suburban areas in the South East of England may complain that development is focused on their area of the country, but the simple fact is that London is the economic powerhouse of the UK and a magnet for talent, entrepreneurship and prosperity – our economy is not dispersed across different cities and regions as it is in France, Italy or Germany, and no Government can address this imbalance without upsetting the free market economy that all of the mainstream political parties are signed up to. Therefore, those who live in the South East of England benefit disproportionately from this economic success, and logically should accept a fair share of new development for homes, industry and requisite infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the debate over planning and development in the UK rarely touches on logic. The CPRE may have good intentions, but they have to accept that development on Green Belt / Greenfield was not and is not always a bad thing. The same needs and motivations that prompted development in the countryside back in 1953, 1963, 1973 and 1983 still exist in 2013 – and these are not going to go away.

Only 2.3% of the UK has been “concreted over”. A tiny increase in this could make a significant dent in our housing crisis, stimulate the economy, and create a more sensible planning framework based on need and evidence. However, local and national government is not delivering a consensual approach to accommodating development, and so for the foreseeable future, it will fall on the development industry to take the strain.

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