October 23, 2017

Planning for starvation

The Second Land Utilisation Survey of 1976 presents an unsettling picture of land use trends – which, if pursued, will undermine Britain’s ability to feed itself, while also removing the last of our wild spaces.

Editorial article, published in The Ecologist Vol. 7 No. 2, March 1977. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006). See ordering information for the Funbook.


Our society is ideologically committed to economic growth which involves methodically substituting a new organisation of matter, the technosphere or world of human artefacts for the biosphere or world of living things of which we are an integral part.

This process must give rise to a set of closely related side-effects, including pollution, resource depletion, social disintegration and the loss of agricultural land to erosion and urbanisation, all of which are but symptoms of biospheric contraction and deterioration.

What people still fail to understand is that these side effects are inevitable and that all the politicians, planners, technologists and scientists in the world can-not prevent them. The fact is – and this is one of the realities we are most loath to face – we cannot have our cake and eat it.

Thus OECD has stated that Europe must choose between clean air and economic growth. It cannot have both.

The Countryside Commission has recently implied that if we want trees – outside Forestry Commission plantations and in the grounds of the few remaining stately homes – then we cannot have modern agriculture.

Nor can we have modern agriculture, as the Nature Conservancy states quite explicitly in its annual report for 1977, if we want any wildlife at all to survive in these islands.

The Second Land Utilisation Survey, however, presents us with a still more frightening choice: If economic growth continues, then by the year 2157, it is not just modern agriculture that we will have to give up, but agriculture of any type whatsoever, for by then, it will not only be the trees and the wildlife that will have disappeared but the land itself, all of which will either have been built on or transformed into wasteland, derelict land or “tended space”.

Alice Coleman [“Is Planning really Necessary?” The Geographical Journal Vol. 142 Part 3, November 1976], who is largely responsible for this survey, is busy writing and lecturing about its implications to any audience she can muster. Needless to say, our politicians are far too concerned with such really important issues as equal pay for women and the nationalisation of the ship repairing industry, to worry about the fact that soon there will be no food for Britain’s 70 million people.

Perhaps their expert advisers – the Zukermans, Mellanbys, Baloghs and company – have not told them that cabbages do not grow too well on cement, or for that matter, on wasteland, derelict land or “tended space”. Perhaps they have yet again been reassured of man’s limitless ingenuity and of the infinite capacity of science and technology to solve any problem, however insoluble it may appear to the ignorant layman.

Meanwhile let us look at the salient features of Alice Coleman’s report.

Firstly it appears that since 1933, when the late Sir Dudley Stamp’s first Land Survey was published, England and Wales have lost 1.25 million acres of farmland to urbanisation. This works out at 30,000 acres a year, which some might well regard as tolerable. However the figure is deceptive for a number of reasons. First of all during the war the amount of agricultural land increased and it was only 15 years after the end of the war that it was reduced from its 1939 level. The net loss was therefore the result of our activities in the remaining 15 years which resulted in the annual loss of 60,000 acres a year, not 30,000.

Secondly the rate of farmland loss has increased in recent years, and according to Alice Coleman “may accelerate still more with the emphasis on greenfield sites for acquisition under the Community Land Act”. This suggests that at the present time the annual rate of loss is well in excess of 60,000 acres. Sources outside this report suggest in fact that it may be above 100,000 acres a year.

Thirdly these 1,250,000 acres represent the net loss of agricultural land. A great deal more was in fact taken, but this was largely replaced by ‘up-grading’ scrubland to farmland.

Thus between 1933 and 1972, in the Kyloe Hills of Northumberland, the area classified as “farmscape” went up from 67.7 to 75.5 per cent; and that classified as “marginal fringe” from 11.7 to 13.1 per cent; whilst that classified as “wildscape” fell during the same period, from 20.6 to 10.2 per cent.

In this way fourth or fifth grade land has replaced high quality land – a fact that is not reflected in official figures. What is more there is not much wildscape left and when we run out, the net annual loss of agricultural land will rise correspondingly.

The figure of 1,250,000 acres is deceptive for another reason: our remaining farmland has been hideously fragmented by anarchic urban growth so that it is exposed to trespass and to damage by vandals – (for instance at New Addington, boys from a housing estate climbed into an adjacent field and cut the tails off all the cows).

According to Alice Coleman, at least 22 per cent of our agricultural land is now affected in this way. This has led to the reduction of yields and as reflected in the increase in “wasteland” in and around towns, to the abandonment of much otherwise good agricultural land.

These trends were already apparent to Sir Dudley Stamp in 1933. In fact it was largely in order to reverse them that our present massive planning apparatus was set up. That they have become so much more pronounced during the last decades is a clear indication that planners, like politicians, serve little purpose but to accommodate and hence to accentuate socio-economic trends however undesirable they may be – and in this case undesirable they certainly are.

Let us see just how so much agricultural land has been, and is being, used up. For her survey Alice Coleman examined an area of 850 square miles of the Thames Estuary which provided a fine example of current land use. It appears that for every unit of land used for providing homes and shops, 6 have been used for factories, 16 for roads, 15 have been turned into “tended space” i.e. lawns, gardens, play areas etc.. and 9 have become derelict, while 61 have been turned into wasteland.

To use up 15 times more land for “tended space” than for settlements proper seems perfectly ludicrous but it presumably reflects the misguided architectural trends of today, with high-rise buildings interspersed among motorways and badly tended, rubbish-strewn lawns. It is obviously scandalous to use up 16 times more land for roads than for housing and this clearly indicates the extent of the pressures on Local Councils and the Department of the Environment by that iniquitous organisation The British Roads Federation and the motor-car industry in general.

To create 70 units of derelict land and wasteland for every unit of housing provided, does require some explanation. It appears to be due partly to mammoth incompetence. Alice Coleman points out that during the period she studied for her survey, almost as much demolition took place (36 units) as actual building (37 units). Much of the land cleared in this way remained derelict or was eventually up-graded into wasteland or scrub.

Socio-economic pressures to build new houses near factories and shopping centres (so that people could best fulfil their functions as consumers and producers) led to houses being situated elsewhere than on the available derelict land. Also much wasteland was created, as we have seen, by the abandonment of farmland that ceased to be viable because of its proximity to urban areas – a tendency accentuated by incompetent planning, which maximised rather than minimised the interface between “townscape” and “farmscape”.

The counter-productiveness of our planning effort is even more apparent when one considers where the land used up in this way came from. Ten units, it appears, were derived from abandoned mines, which is reasonable enough: 14 from woodland and heath, which is less justifiable since Britain has only 8 percent woodland, (less than any other European country except Ireland) and worst of all, 84 units from improved farmland.

As Alice Coleman points out the whole of our housing programme could have been built on pre-existing derelict land. It could also have been built many times over on pre-existing wasteland. This could only have been done if the constraints preventing our planners from observing their original brief had been purely physical ones.

As we know, however, they were subject to all sorts of other pressures – those that, in different ways, must inevitably lead them to accommodate disastrous socio-economic trends, associated with the ultimate phases of the process of economic growth and social disintegration.

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