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1. Mark Easton, 'The great myth of urban Britain', 28 June 2012, BBC News UK, posted here

2. UK National Ecosystem Assessment, June 2011, posted here

3. John Selborne, Foreword, UK National Ecosystem Assessment - Synthesis of the Key Findings, Cambridge, UK National Ecosystem Assessment Secretariat, June 2011, p 4, posted here

4. UK National Ecosystem Assessment - Technical Report, Chapter 10: Urban, Cambridge, UK National Ecosystem Assessment Secretariat, June 2011, p 364, posted here

5. Ibid, p 365

6. Ibid, p 366

7. Ibid, p 367

8. Ibid, p 370

9. Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Land Cover Map 2000, posted here

10.Communities and Local Government, Urban Settlements 2001 - Data Methodology Guide, London, CLG, 2001, posted here

11. Communities and Local Government, 2001 Settlements England and Wales, Data Spreadsheet, posted here

12. Dudley Stamp, The Land of Britain - Its Use and Misuse, London, Longmans Green & Co., 1948, p 197 to 198

13. Office for National Statistics, Release: Environmental Accounts - 2011, 29 June 2011, ONS, posted here

14. Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Land Cover Map 2007, posted here

15. Natural Environment Research Council and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lead Partners, The Countryside Survey, 2007, posted here

16. Ian Abley and Thomas Cooper, Further discussion on the Aims of the 250 New Towns Club - Fearing a developer's charter in 2012: The strange case of the National Planning Policy Framework, 12 March 2012, 250 New Towns Club, posted here

17. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Countryside Survey: UK Results from 2007 - The National Picture, Chapter 2, Lancaster, The Countryside Survey Project, November 2008, posted here

18. Communities and Local Government, Generalised Land Use Database Statistics for England 2005, 5 February 2007, CLG, posted here

250 New Towns - The club for people with big plans to build

click here for the aims of the 250 New Towns Clubclick here for the 250 Locations index


Plotlands as a measure of housing affordability 75 years on



Where to build?

How little space we live in

Mark EastonThe BBC Home Correspondent Mark Easton has recently asked his audience '... what proportion of Britain do you reckon is built on? By that I mean covered by buildings, roads, car parks, railways, paths and so on - what people might call "concreted over".' (1) He was prompted to ask this important question, he said, because he had read with some surprise that '... woodland is now calculated to cover 12.7% of the UK, the highest proportion since 1924 when records began.' (1) He had read this in the publications of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA), the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and continuing economic prosperity. Part of the Living With Environmental Change initiative, the UK NEA commenced in 2009 and reported in June 2011. It says it is '... an inclusive process involving many government, academic, NGO and private sector institutions.' (2) The following phase is now being organised, and will be equally inclusive.

click here for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment

John SelborneI must admit to not recognising the UK NEA as a study worth reading in its detail. The UK NEA is an eco-audit. With the Secretariat based at the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) in Cambridge, the UK NEA promised some very silly things through the Blue-Green Conservative Lord Selborne, like '... a new way of estimating our national wealth.' (3) Nonsense from John Roundell Palmer, the 4th Earl of Selborne, a major landowning farmer in Hampshire, and an environmentalist with a hereditary title in the House of Lords. But as Easton has shown, I should have taken the UK NEA data seriously. I should have gone beyond the eco-spin that '... urbanisation can be considered as a human ecosystem framework.' (4)

Chapter 10 of the UK NEA Technical Report considers urbanisation in the UK. It is honest enough to recognise the sorry state of urban research:

'Assessing Urban habitats in the UK poses a number of challenges since they are not systematically monitored and the wide range of organisations collecting data often use inconsistent typology.' With the result that '... it is not possible to compare across datasets due to the different approaches and typologies applied.' (4)

It is perhaps odd in a country so obsessed with urbanisation, that the armies of urbanists have not bothered to compare their research Apples for other research Apples. As Easton sensibly observes, '... the 80% of us who live in towns and cities spend an inordinate amount of time staring at tarmac and brick. On most urban roads, one can be tricked into thinking that the ribbon of grey we see reflects the land use for miles around... But when you look out of a plane window as you buckle-up ahead of landing at a UK airport, the revelation is how green the country appears.' (1) Yet to believe many urbanists about sprawl would be to ignore the evidence of our own eyes, and imagine the countryside concreted over. The UK NEA know this is false. It has tried to get a more realistic assessment, though it cannot manage an Apples for Apples comparison either. Even why "urban" should be defined in such a way as to include 80% of the population needs unpicking. The UK NEA does this.

Measures vary. The UK NEA point out that currently '... the Office of National Statistics classifies "urban" as contiguous areas with more than 10,000 people, which they define as "physical settlement areas".' (4) On this measure 80% of the UK lives in an urban area, which includes the suburbs. The pre-2004 ONS measurement of "urban" as any area with at least 1,000 people covered 90% of the population of the UK. Many small towns and villages in the UK are not considered sufficiently urban by the ONS. However the >10,000 measure currently used by the ONS seems to overestimate the urban area when compared to the Land Cover Map 2000, (9) as used by the UK NEA. (5) The Communities and Local Government measure for England and Wales for settlements over 1000 people in 2001 appears outdated. (10) As does the CLG data. (11)

Although Table 10.1 (5) incorrectly states the total area of the United Kingdom, the UK NEA suggests 24,410,000 hectares is made up of:

  • 13,042,000 hectares for England, or 53.43%
  • 7,871,000 hectares for Scotland, or 32.24%
  • 2,081,000 hectares for Wales, or 8.53%
  • 1,416,000 hectares for Northern Ireland, or 5.80%

That means Britain, which excludes Northern Ireland, and rightly so because it is part of Ireland, is 22,994,000 hectares, made up of:

  • 13,042,000 hectares for England, or 56.72%
  • 7,871,000 hectares for Scotland, or 34.23%
  • 2,081,000 hectares for Wales, or 9.05%

The Urban area of Northern Ireland is 3.39% of the total of that part of Ireland. For Britain the UK NEA states that the Urban area is:

  • 1,384,000 hectares for England, or 10.61% of the total
  • 152,000 hectares for Scotland, or 1.93% of the total
  • 87,000 hectares for Wales, or 4.18% of the total

Those figures are rounded to headlines of 10.6%, 1.9%, and 4.2% respectively. The headline figure for UK urbanisation is 6.8%. (5) As Easton says, '... 93% of the UK is not urban.' (1) He is looking at the UK, but Britain means discounting Northern Ireland. The UK NEA gives a total Urban area for Britain of 1,623,000 hectares, which is 7.01% of the total for the country. That is a lower Urban area figure than earlier studies had suggested, but taking Northern Ireland out of the equation gives a headline of 7.0% urbanisation. 93% of Britain is not urbanised.

Graham Odds has produced a brilliant set of maps of the UK, and the separate parts, showing how these headline land uses appear when clustered together. Thanks to Graham Odds at www.scottlogic.co.uk for his kind permission to reproduce the Habitat Cluster Maps:


click here for Scott Logic and the larger original of the Habitat Cluster Map, courtesy of Graham Odds

Thanks to Graham Odds at www.scottlogic.co.uk for his kind permission to reproduce the Habitat Cluster Maps

Dudley Stamp Excluding Northern Ireland it appears that Britain may indeed be thought of as nearly 23 million hectares. When Dudley Stamp looked at Britain's land use between 1933 and 1948 he rather measured the land area at 22,744,099, or 22.75 million hectares. (12) Looking at landscape categories up to 2007 the ONS measured the developed area of Britain to be around 1,932,000 hectares including all gardens and parks, "Linear Features" of infrastructure and "Other" categories, out of what they said was a total land area of 22,627,000 hectares, or closer to 22.6 million hectares. (13) These figures have been presented in the Land Cover Map 2007, (14) and the various reports of the Countryside Survey. (15) The ONS suggested Britain was 8.54% developed, even taking the lowest figure for the total area of Britain and the highest measure for what constitutes development. As we observed at the 250 New Towns Club in March 2012, (16) there seems to be plenty to dispute in these figures. With 1,323,000 hectares identified as "Built up Areas and Gardens" we wondered if residential development constitutes between 5 and 6% of Britain. (17) Thanks to the UK NEA we know that was an overestimation.

clickWhere to build? 19.03.2011 9.0Mb Download pdf

To isolate a figure for housing from all other development is a task. But as Easton also appreciates, '... that isn't the end of the story because urban is not the same as built on.' (1) The UK NEA classification of Urban areas is based on the Land Cover Map 2000, (9) and is described as "Built-up Areas and Gardens", which in addition to every kind of building includes all paving, roads, railways, and other infrastructure, along with numerous categories of "greenspace". In the UK NEA "greenspace" has some precision, recognising the following array of Urban subhabitats:

  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest in primarily Urban areas
  • Urban Forests, Urban Woodlands, Hedges, and Scrubland
  • Street Trees as single trees or small areas with Paving
  • Public Parks, including any Water as Ponds or Lakes
  • Formal Gardens
  • Domestic Gardens
  • Amenity Greenspace often around Housing, and Informal Spaces
  • Allotments, Community Gardens, Orchards, and Urban Farms
  • Green Corridors as Cycleways, Bridleways, and Rights of Way
  • Rivers, Canals, Streams, and Ditches, with their Banked Verges
  • Open Water in Reservoirs, Lakes, and Urban Wetlands
  • Outdoor Sports Facilities or Recreational Areas
  • Churchyards, Cemeteries, and other Burial Grounds
  • Peri-urban Areas as the Suburban Fringe to countryside
  • Previously Developed Land, including Vacant Land (8)

It is important to note that this measure of "greenspace" in Urban areas includes all Brownfield Land, or Previously Developed Land which may be derelict and contaminated. It is to this Brownfield Land that planning policy, and explicitly since 1999, has sought to push development. Unfortunately '... there is no single source of Urban greenspace data,' and as the UK NEA recognise, it is '... difficult to provide good estimates of extent and condition across the UK.' (6) A fact that might seem surprising when planning policy has long sought to prioritise the redevelopment of Brownfield sites, and has succeeded in its aim of densification within existing Urban areas. As the UK NEA observes:

'The process of urban compaction and the designation of the "Green Belt" in the fight against sprawl, together with housing policies, have increased density quite severely in some parts. New build on all land types in London increased from 47 dwellings per hectare (dph) in 1989 to 121 dph in 2009... In other regions, increases were more modest, but rises from 23 dph and 21 dph, in 1989, to 43 dph and 34 dph, in 2009, were observed in the North West and East Midlands respectively... In addition, during the past decade, many large cities have developed extensive flatted accommodation in inner areas, which houses high population densities and provides little greenspace.' (6)

Despite the planned Urban cramming that has gone on the UK NEA considers the accuracy of the Generalised Land Use Database, (18) which, if true, suggests that a surprisingly high 78.6% of Urban areas in England consist of "greenspace". The remaining 21.4% of England's Urban areas therefore consist of domestic and non-domestic buildings, combined with paving, roads, railways, and other infrastructure. (7)

Easton takes the 10.6% headline for urbanisation in England and points out that 21.4% of that figure is rounded up to 2.27%. 'According to the most detailed analysis ever conducted, almost 98% of England is, in their word, natural.' (1) Of course the countryside of England, Britain, or the UK is far from natural - it is very much man-made, but Easton knows that too. While 6.8% of the UK, or 7.0% of Britain is Urban area, 97.73% of England is either "greenspace" within towns and cities, or countryside, sparsely populated. How little space we live in!

The crammers will no doubt conclude from the figure of 78.6% that there is plenty of scope for far more cramming of development into "greenspace". The UK NEA say that '... since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act... there has been very little focus on the extent and condition of greenspace, although this has started to change in recent years.' (6) This sounds over optimistic. The focus is still very much on cramming residential development, in our view, with little regard for the quantity and quality of Urban greenspace provided, or built over.

Of course the crammers don't care that the area occupied by housing alone is much less than the Urban area without "greenspace" that Easton calculates. It is possible to separate the area for residential development from that for all other development, paving, roads, railways and infrastructure. It is quite revealing to cluster the land occupied by dwellings to compare to the Habitat Cluster Maps produced by Graham Odds. Domestic life for 80% of the English, or around 42,500,000 people, is already crammed into less than 2.27% of England.


click here for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment

Source: UK National Ecosystem Assessment - Synthesis of the Key Findings, Cambridge, UK NEA, June 2011, posted here

How crammed are we? If complete as a dataset of every Local Authority the Generalised Land Use Database suggests that the total of domestic building in England occupies 150,770 hectares of land. (18) That is a mere 1.156% of England's total area, equal to 10.89% of England's Urban area. That is surprisingly little residential space. Obviously gardens are excluded in that measure, which is only the built accommodation, and all housing types need open space surrounding them. It is a measure of how little land the houses and flats we live in actually stand on.

It would appear that 98.844% of England is not actual housing, and most of Urban England is not housing either. The GLUD figure is given for all housing, including the homes not counted by the UK NEA to be within Urban areas. Between 10% and 20% of the population are already living in dispersed settlements. In contrast the vast majority of the population are contained within less than 1.2% of England. Most of us go home to live within 11% of the Urban area, which is itself less than 11% of England, and mostly "greenspace" in the process of being built on through the planning system. We could easily spread out. We should!

clickAbolish the Green Belt and abolish the "City" 16.04.2008

We don't want to lose the gardens we have, or the other categories of "greenspace" that we might enjoy within easy reach of our homes. We don't need to lose these open aspects of Urban areas. In fact we could do with more quality greenspace. There is so much redundant farmland to build on in England, within and without the Green Belts, that the Urban area could easily be expanded. The greenspaces we want to use would expand with the new housing development, in new locations. Easton appreciates the proof the UK NEA provides. 'It is clear that only a small fraction of Britain has been concreted over.' (1) I must update this:

clickWhere to build in 2009? 14.04.2009

The UK NEA is worth reading in some detail after all. I will read on. But as Mark Easton says, '... quite simply, the figures suggest Britain's mental picture of its landscape is far removed from the reality.' (1)

Ian Abley 12.07.2012 updated with two references 14.07.2012

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