The Sustainable Communities Plan will mean development in the countryside, and London moving east. This, suggests CIWEM's Nick Reeves, is a symptom of an urban-fixated society.
The Government wants to clear large areas of the countryside and spend billions of pounds on new housing estates and theme parks. Land south of a line from the Severn Estuary in the southwest to the Wash in the northeast will make way for thousands of new homes, and London will move east to the flood plains of the Thames Gateway.
Some believe the English countryside will be decimated because successive governments have allowed the population to grow unsustainably in the interests of economic growth. Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission Jonathan Porritt says: “It is the speed with which human numbers have grown that lies at the heart of today’s ecological crisis.”
Huge growth in the population and consumer demand has led to barmy social and economic policies at severe cost to the environment. We are now seeing development beyond the capacity of the environment to sustain it. The Government, though, says: “The Southeast needs to perform to its full economic potential.” It also says that a housing shortfall is leading to affordability problems, and is hampering the economy.
In Securing the Future, the UK strategy document for sustainable development, the Government is committed to development within environmental limits; yet the reality is very different and is one of unsustainable growth. So, it’s not hard to see why plans for thousands of new homes in the most densely populated region in the UK are so controversial.
Apart from scarce water resources and a creaking infrastructure, some planners – and most green groups – agree that concentrating development in one corner of southeast England runs the risk of widening the acute divide between North and South.
There’s also the worry that communities built to the diktat of Westminster politicians will become ghettos of Barrett-style dormitory towns, lacking community or cohesion, storing social problems for the future. But John Prescott insists that all new developments will meet the test of sustainability. House builders remain sceptical and fear that Government will not meet the huge infrastructure costs involved.
Those who fear for the loss of so much countryside are presented as nostalgia-freaks, and those who support Government plans for development are seen as townies with no regard for rural living, our landscape heritage or the environment.
Nostalgia is a heady drug – the opiate of middle England. Some speak of the countryside as though there had been a rustic golden age. There was no such thing. Life was tough in the countryside. What did survive, though, was that indefinable thing called community. Rural communities were sustainable and self-supporting. We have not honoured our inheritance, however. Aggressive agriculture and planning have ripped the guts from those things we profess to hold dear. And we can expect more of the same. They have noted that the wild bits beyond the towns and cities will take more houses and make theme parks of what remains for the recreation of town and city folk, and for overseas visitors.
The Government wants 1.1M new homes in the southeast by 2016. If John Prescott gets his way, “economic triggers” will replace the usual environmental and other factors that local authorities traditionally invoke to protect the landscape from development.
Meanwhile, London is moving east to the Thames Gateway – downstream of the Thames Barrier – where around 85,000 of the new homes will be at risk of flooding and where there is water scarcity. The Environment Agency, CIWEM and others are advising the Government that, unless there are flood-resilience measures, the impact of floods on new development could be catastrophic.
Estates must sit cheek by jowl with “flood storage areas” such as sports pitches, parks and other forms of open space, to create temporary lakes if they are to withstand the changing climate and rising sea levels. Climate scientists predict that tidal flooding will double by 2030 and have called for a ten-mile barrier across the Thames estuary from Sheerness in Kent to Southend to protect the whole of the Thames Gateway.
We live in a politicised world. Only expediency speaks louder than dogma. For all that Britain has had done to it, we still have some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. We all know about the grand settings that are protected. But the dazzling beauty of these set pieces must not blind us to the value of ordinary and less-exalted landscapes where the ecology is important too.