Why we need five million
new homes in the next
With a foreword by Robert Bruegmann
1. J.G. Ballard, The Times, 8 November 2001
2. Sir Crispin Tickell quoted in The Telegraph, 6 February 1998
3. Phil Macnaghten and John Urry, Contested Natures, London, Sage Publications, 1998, p 39
4. Duncan Sandys MP, House of Commons, 26 April 1955
5. Dominic Hobson, The National Wealth - Who gets what in Britain, London, Harper Collins, 1999, p 118
6. J.W. Robertson Scott, England's Green and Pleasant Land, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1947, p 168
7. Chris Haskins quoted in The Guardian, 7 March 2001
8. Press release, State of the Countryside 2001, The Countryside Agency, 3 April 2001
9. The Guardian, 11 April 2001
10. Lester Brown and Christopher Flavin, State of the World - 1999, Worldwatch Institute, London, Earthscan, p 120
11. John Walsh, Valuation Office Agency figures, Agricultural land prices statistics and indicators, MAFF
12. Roger Bate and Julian Morris, Fearing Food, London, Butterworth Heinemann, 1999, p 6
Build more on greenfield sites and the Green Belt
Government guidelines favour the re-development of brownfield sites. Forty per cent of the British public are concerned about the loss of Green Belt, even though in England it doubled between 1979 and 1993. Richard Rogers' Urban Taskforce report popularised the idea of urban villages, built on re-claimed industrial land.
For those of us with an inbuilt urban bias - like me - it was an attractive picture of 'café society' on the City canal-side. After all, the man who is tired of London is tired of life, said Dr Johnson. But it is not what most people want. Since the 1970s, the historic population shift from country to town has been in reverse. Cornwall, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire and other southern counties have seen the biggest increase in population between 1981 and 1991, while the numbers in urban centres like London, Liverpool and Belfast are either stagnant, or falling.
Against Rogers' rather twee vision of city life, novelist J.G. Ballard argues that '... what happens in Muswell Hill or Fulham doesn't matter a damn. It's what happens out in the M3/M4 triangle, among these science parks and industrial estates and marinas, that shapes the psychology of this country'. (1)
Government advisor Sir Crispin Tickell summed up the prejudices of the age when he urged the government not to build new homes, simply arguing that '... if you build more houses... more people will live alone rather than live in couples with granny upstairs'. (2) Sir Crispin's residence is listed in Who's Who as a Somerset farmhouse.
The rationale behind the creation of the Green Belts was, according to researchers Phil Macnaghten and John Urry '... to protect town and country distinctions'. (3) Hang-'em-and-flog-'em Tory MP Duncan Sandys created the green belt saying, '... we have a clear duty to do all we can to prevent the further unrestricted sprawl of the great cities'. (4) Sandys' real purpose was directed against the city-dwellers as much as it was for the countryside.
The paranoid attempts to keep city-dwellers out of the country have gone on ever since those first clearances, with vicious laws of trespass, the green belt itself, right up to the 1994 Criminal Justice Act ban on ravers taking over barns with their "repetitive beats". Sandys introduced the Green Belt in the 1947 Town and Country Act, though London's dates back to 1938. The Green Belts were a kind of barricade to prevent the ugly troglodytes escaping from their cities into the fragrant countryside preserve of the elite. In area, the Green Belts cover 1,650,000 hectares. The National Parks, originally created in 1949, cover one tenth of England and Wales. (5)
Holding back urban sprawl was one consideration that led to the Green Belts. The other was the competing pressure for land between farm use and town development. Britain in the post-war period was an Indian summer for farmers. The 1920s and 1930s had been disastrous not just in Britain but also internationally, as the countryside suffered the worst effects of the slump, in poverty and depopulation. But the war-time experience changed all that. Food security became a priority. Policy was skewed towards increasing output both during and after the war.
There are two ways of increasing agricultural output: either extensively, by putting more land under cultivation, or intensively, by getting higher yields from existing land. In the first instance the policy promoted extensive growth. Robertson Scott, editor of the Countryman wrote in 1947 '... I could not have believed that between 1924 and 1947 the countryside would have got more than three-quarters of a million new cottages'. (6) The Common Agricultural Policy favoured extensive growth, as it subsidised prices, by empowering the "Intervention Board" to buy up surpluses to guarantee a healthy return. The effect was to artificially boost prices, and to reward farmers for increasing their output. The effects of extensive growth can be seen today in the fact that fully three quarters of land in the United Kingdom is under agricultural use. In March 1988 the Intervention Board held half a million tonnes of Barley and 100, 000 tonnes of Beef. Wartime paranoia about self-sufficiency turned the country into a vast agricultural estate.
CAP subsidies went to big and small farmers alike, putting off the day of final reckoning one would expect in a more open market. Though protected against competition from abroad, the bigger agri-businesses still introduced economies of scale and mechanisation to increase output by intensive methods of growth, even if smaller farmers did not. The impact of the advances in output has been remarkable. The price of farm goods fell year on year, a saving that is passed onto consumers in food prices. According to the British Household Survey spending on food and clothing fell from around a third of income in 1950 to a tenth in 1998. According to Northern Food's Chris Haskins '... if we wanted to recreate the country side of 40 years ago, either the consumer or the taxpayer would have to pay at least twice as much (an extra £50bn) for food'. (7)
As long as the CAP was intact, small farmers were protected against the consequences of falling food prices, as the Intervention Board boosted those prices with artificial demand. But the reformed CAP no longer subsidises prices, but subsidises production. The small farmers were suddenly exposed to the full impact of their failure to keep pace with new techniques. Early last year, the Countryside Agency announced that '... farming income fell to its lowest level in 25 years in 2000 - just £7,800 per capita'. (8)
During the BSE crisis agri-business was widely blamed for industrialising food production with precious little regard for health, as again it was for the spread of foot and mouth disease last year. But ironically, the effect of these two health crises in farming has been to accelerate the victory of big agri-business over the small farmer. During the BSE crisis, the Ministry of Agriculture Farms and Fisheries reflected that there were too many abattoirs and '... hopefully the smaller less efficient firms will be forced to close'. (9) At the same time small herds fell in number, while larger herds rose. With the foot and mouth crisis, small farms are at crisis point. Government ministers reckon a quarter of all farms will close by the year 2005, and 50,000 people will leave the industry.
If I dwell on the finances of farming, it is because more than anything else, it is the changes within agriculture that will shape the future of land use. As more and more land is retired from farm use, the debate must open up over what we must do with our land. In real terms there is no longer any need to dedicate three quarters of the country to farming.
Put bluntly, the historical division between Town and Country is today an anachronism. Increased yields mean that the planet just does not need to dedicate so much acreage to feeding even a growing population.
Mechanisation, high-yield crops, chemical fertilisers and irrigation have increased the world grain yield per hectare from 1.06 tons in 1950 to 2.73 tons in 1998. Consequently, the area of land under cultivation for grain has fallen from an all time high of 732 million hectares in 1981 to 690 million hectares. (10)
In Britain, the effect of retiring land from farm use is cushioned by schemes to take surplus land off the market. Farmers are paid by the European Union to let nearly 600,000 hectares lie idle in the "set aside" scheme. The National Trust is planning to buy and flood 14 square miles of top grade farmland to recreate a fenland habitat for beetles and other insects in Wicken Fen, East Anglia. Meanwhile the four million new homes that the Department of the Environment estimates are necessary to supply a growing population are treated as a lower priority. Surveying the enclosure of common land from the people to raise sheep, Thomas More wrote caustically '... your sheep, that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves'. Today, he would have to write "beetles" for "sheep".
By taking land off the market, the government and the European Union have succeeded in stopping a collapse in farm rents and land prices, but these are now beginning to show a decline, as one would expect with the closure of farms. (11)
Understandably, small farmers are unwilling to accept defeat, and dedicate considerable ingenuity to rescuing the family farm. The flurry of innovative attempts at diversification are impressive, but in the long run, probably not viable. The best known is the increase in organic farming promoted by the Soil Association in Britain. Since 1994, the government has spent millions subsidising farmers who switch to organic farms, though these still only account for less than one per cent of farm produce in the developed countries. One farmer says that '... I'm lucky to get half as much yield from my organic acres'. (12)
If organic farming is a way that a small number of farmers have managed to continue working the land, more common are the many attempts to diversify into leisure industries. Take a trip to the country on any weekend and you are likely to see - as I did - road and cross-country cycling, and motor-cycling, walking, and running, horse-riding, hunting, model-air-plane-flying, and even home-made hover crafting. At the height of Britain's foot-and-mouth crisis the truth emerged that the bar on travel to the countryside caused a far greater loss to the tourist industry in the peak district than it did to farmers - because the sums involved are so much greater.
As happened to industry in the 1980s, the countryside is being hollowed out and turned into a countryside theme park.
Then the heritage industry was turning mines and factories into museums; now it is turning traditional family farms into time-frozen exhibits. But the lesson of the heritage industry is that the market for the Industrial Revolution experience is a tiny percentage of the market for the products of the original industrial revolution. Farmers might dream of making themselves custodians of the countryside, but record is not impressive, and in any event we have something much more vital to do with the surplus land: live there.
Urban village snobs might look down their noses at the ribbon developments of Barrat Homes, but they simply do not understand the popular impetus to take back the countryside. Successive generations of scrofulous townies have tried to take back the land they were so cruelly robbed of by Lord and Lady muck. In the 1930s the Kinder Scout Trespass used rambling over landed states as its guerrilla tactic. In the post-war period, families from the East End of London started to live in the beach-houses they made at Pitsea, as their children moved there to make the new town of Basildon.
The Green Belt legislation today is an anachronism belonging to a time when the rich man was in his castle and the poor man at his gate. There was a long historical period running from the late middle ages to the twilight of the industrial revolution when it was unavoidable that town and country would assume a geographical separation, by virtue of the vast area of land need to feed the growing urban population. But today, less land yields more food. Agriculture is becoming more like industry, and the new living spaces occupied by previously urban populations are more like the countryside.
Rather than despairing over the quality of new greenfield developments, architects need to make sure that the four million new homes are built imaginatively and beautifully - otherwise everything will be left in the hands of dreary developers, while the critics keep their consciences pure and their hands clean. Coming generations will require open and green spaces to live in, with quality mass services. Those aspirations only seem contradictory if we insist on thinking in the old dogma of town and countryside. That separation is over.
The material constraints that made people live on top of each other in the nineteenth century city no longer exist: new building materials, cheaper and faster transport, better communications means that the dream - to take back the countryside as a place to live - is within our grasp. Only the artificial constraints of planning legislation sustain the out-dated town-country division. Let's build more on greenfield sites and the Green Belt, and build well.
James Heartfield 29.07.2002, first published in the January 2002 edition of Blueprint magazine
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