Concreting Over the English Countryside



The Concreting of our Gardens and Countryside

by Planning Matters

The population of the UK grew nearly a fifth (10 million) between 1950 and 2000 -within the lifetime of many people living today. From mid-2000 to mid-2006, it has been allowed to grow by an estimated 1.5 million more, and population density has increased in most areas of England and Wales, with severe pressure in the south-east of England. At current rates of population growth, the UK will soon become the most densely populated country in Europe.The results of long-term population growth, combined with consumption growth, can be seen all around us as our landscapes are lost to large-scale housing expansion with all its supporting infrastructure needs. Some 160,000 homes are being built in the UK every year -with infrastructure the equivalent of half a capital city the size of Cardiff. But as fast as developers develop and builders build, population growth moves the goalposts. –

Household projections published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) on 16 March 2007showed the annual rate of household growth in England from 2004 to 2026 rising yet again -to 223,000 a year compared withthe 209,000 projected one year earlier. A third of this household growth -one million extra households in England every fouryears -was recognised as directly due to net inward migration into England, with the rest due to reducing average household size as growing numbers of separated couples, more unmarried people, and more older people live alone (including previous generations of migrants). Yet successive governments and developers continue to call for more and more housing supply -to satisfy unlimited demand, instead of recommending limits to population growth as part of the solution: the additional housing ‘need’ might not have occurred if population stabilisation and reduction policies had been put in place in 1990.

From 1990 to 1998, according to DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, some 8,000 hectares of undeveloped land in England were urbanised every year, and with population growth running at more than 320,000 a year since 2004, the rate is likely to increase. Housing is only half of the story: urbanised areas are continuously expanding to meet the need for the roads, airports, shops, offices, factories, hospitals, leisure facilities, power stations and wind farms, prisons and waste dumps that go with rising population and rising consumption.With older people living longer and younger people marrying later or living in one-parent households, average household size fell from 2.9 people in 1971 to 2.4 in 2004, according to the Barker Review of Land Use Planning , commissioned by the Treasury and published in December 2006. Average household size is projected to fall from 2.3 in 2006 to 2.1 in 2021, fuelling the demand for housing caused by underlying population growth -of which more than 80% will arise from net inward migration, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). In 2005, UK population was officially projected to reach 70.7 million in 2074, an increase of 10.2 million from the estimated mid-2006 level of 60.5million. But if growth continues at the actual 2000-06 average rate of 0.5%, it will reach 73.5 million in 2050. With projected average household size down from 2.3 in 2006 to 2.1 people in 2021, more than eight million extra homes would be needed to house this increase in England alone.

London and the South-East have become a single megalopolis of gridlocked urban sprawl, and the scale of furtherenvironmental destruction proposed can be seen in the Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future plans from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (now DCLG), some of which were already under way when the 2007-8 recession dampened housing construction. Plans included an “ambition” to build 200,000 extra new homes a year in England alone from 2006-2016. Successive governments’ predict and provide approach to population and housing has been reinforced by recommendations in the Barker Review of Land Use Planning of December 2006. Among its many recommendations to speed up the planning process and allow homes to be built for households forming at the rate of 209,000 people a year is just one environmentally sustainable recommendation -that policies should focus,”wherever possible, on desired outcomes… for example in terms of climate change, the outcome should be to reduce the carbon footprint with the best means being flexible.” The ecological impact of building up to eight million extra homes by 2050 is demonstrated in Section 5 and Section 6 below. And with new official projections indicating even higher population growth, eight million homes has become an underestimate. Greenfield sites, Green Belt and green space in cities (private gardens are classified as ‘brownfield sites’) are all being sacrificed to urbanisation. Massive development plans include new towns in central England and a megalopolis band of development for 15 million people across the North of England. Urban sprawl is taking place even in National Parks -nowhere is safe from environmental destruction.


Barker Review of Land Use Planning,while appearing to support environmental considerations and acknowledging that England “is a small and relatively densely-populated country”, recommended a series of policies that would let development rip further into the UK’s shrinking green land. These included “a policy framework which encourages…a more positive attitude to development” and “setting out the case for local planning authorities to have better financial incentives and flexibility to promote economic development more effectively.”

East England Regional Assembly, an unelected body of local authority and other representatives of the South-East region, revealed plans to build 640,000 new homes in the area -up to 32,000 a year -by 2026. (The Sout-East Region includes Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Sussex but not London.) It was estimated that taxpayers would have to meet £30 billion of infrastructure costs. Eight million residents of the South-East were to be asked to choose one of three options for the Plan to allow the building of 25,500, 28,000 or 32,000 homes a year. However, residents were not to be allowed the option of voting for population and planning policies which would make all three of these building targets unnecessary. Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk) by 2021, approved by an unelected Regional Assembly in October, was announced. Thisbrought the total new homes planned for Central, East and South-East England to at least 1.2 millionhomes. -density, high rise housing,but prefer space and natural surroundings. Of people asked what type of property they saw as their dream home only 6% cited a ‘trendy penthouse flat’, compared with 14% citing a family cottage in the countryside, 12% a seafront property, 9% a farmhouse, and 6% ‘a huge mansion in the country’.

On July 2004, John Prescott pledged to build 10,000 housing units a year, for rent, by 2008, and this decision was broadly welcomed. He also confirmed plans to build 200,000 new homes in South-East and Central England by 2016, in the areas of Milton Keynes, Thames Gateway, Ashford in Kent, and the M11 Stansted-Cambridge corridor, bringing total building plans to more than a million homes and supporting transport infrastructure by 2016.

On 20th June, 2004 the Chief Executive of the Energy Savings Trust, in a statement to the Independent on Sunday warned that government-backed plans to build hundreds of thousands of new homes will damage the environment and endanger Britain’s efforts to curb global warming. The statement was hailed as “very important” by the chairman of the House of Commons Environmental Audit committee. -including OPT-DEFRA commissioned an assessment from independent consultants, which confirmed that government plans to build 1.4 million extra new homes in England would have a devastating impact on the country and the wider environment if they were to be carried out. The plans would lead to huge increases in domestic waste disposal, carbon dioxide emissions, loss of countryside and amenity land, water demand and materials quarrying for construction. The plans conflict directly with Kyoto emissions targets and are environmentally unsustainable.

[Study into the Environmental Impacts of Increasing the Supply of Housing in the UK, DEFRA, April 2004.]

Review of Housing Supply written by economist Kate Barker, was published, stating that 1.4 million homes needed to be built in England in the next 10 years (140,000 a year) in addition to the 93,000-146,000 a year already planned or under construction -a total of up to two million homes by 2016. The conclusions of this report were immediately and almost wholly approved by Chancellor Gordon Brown. The building plans in the south-east alone could cost £20 billion without yielding any benefit, taking into account the infrastructure of hospitals, schools and transport that would have to be built to support 200,000 homes. At £20 billion for 200,000 homes, the infrastructure costs for 6.5 million homes would be insupportable.

-It is not only the UK’s human population that is suffering the consequences, but other species: fragmentation of wildlife habitats and the progressive destruction or ‘simplification’ of ecosystems have been caused by human activities. Survey analyses of plant, bird and butterfly species over a 40-year period, show an accelerating rate of decline and extinction in the UK. Ideas such as leaving borders in fields or gardens untouched to allow small ecosystems to flourish have helped to alleviate biodiversity losses. But to pretend that such small-scale ecological benefits will offset the development demanded by and expected16 million more people by 2050 is, OPT maintains, a grotesque deception.

Predict and provide development plans have set in train a gravy train of property speculation as population growth feeds into rising house prices housebuilding and construction companies love population growth, because it means more business.

The plans also contradict the government’s own reported plans to restrain transport growth because of its impact on congestion, pollution and climate change. They are also unnecessary a moderate population stabilisation and reduction policy provides one essential long term contributing solution, alongside others such as the maintenance of planning controls and laws, with the building of limited amounts of affordable housing in rural areas.

The Countryside Agency (now Natural England) has admitted that between 1990 and 1998 only 40% of English landscapes remained unaltered by development. (Some of this development was due to change of agricultural use, and some to urbanisation.) But as with information from many other agencies charged with protecting countryside and landscape in the UK, the true extent of development is hidden. For example, as rural areas become reclassified as urban ones once their population reaches 10,000, the annual percentage of rural land loss appears less significant than it has been over the long term. Population growth is acknowledged as a cause of rapid urbanisation, but stabilising and reducing UK population never mentioned as part of a solution.

In its State of the Countryside 2006 report, the Commission for Rural Communities recognised the continuing trend of urban to rural migration, with a net total of over 105,000 people moving into the most rural areas in 2003/4: “A continuation of this pattern would see the total population of the most rural districts/authorities increaseby just under 20% in the next 20 years or so.” This is already having ecological impacts: “there are warning signs in the worsening of some measures ofbiodiversity in the southern regions of England. “Only the northern Pennines, the Lakes, the North YorkMoors and parts of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Herefordshire, Devon, Cornwall and a small part of Suffolk, Kent and Dorset are still classified as “sparse”. That population growth leads to environmentally unsustainable development can no longer be in doubt.


Government policy, suggesting that more than 40% of new building might take place on greenfield sites and 60% of new homes on brownfield sites, does not take full account of infrastructure needs: in July 2004 a London Schools of Economics report estimated the infrastructure cost for new housing estates at £40,000 per house, which would have to be subsidised by taxpayers. Strong opposition to development projects is evidence of the strength of public feeling against further development on this scale, but power has been removed from the public by a series of planning ‘reforms’.

Housing is not the only source of continued land loss spurred on by population growth: among the infrastructure items needed to support more homes for more people, for example, are railways, nuclear power stations and prisons. Commuter railways are full to bursting in the overcrowded south east where land for new lines is most expensive. An average nuclear power station requires 40 hectares and, if gas cooled, will not be dismantled until 85 years after shutdown. And the prison population of England and Wales hit a bursting point high of more than 80,000 in February 2007 when the government announced plans to build new prisons with 8,000 extra places over five years: the causes of this rise include many non demographic factors, but to build prison capacity for an increase of five million in the total UK population would, at an incarceration rate of 141 prisoners per 100,000 people, require prisons to be built for another 7,050 inmates 20 more prisons the size of HMP Aylesbury or nearly five the size of HMP Wandsworth.


Population growth curbs freedom. To make it easier to carry out large infrastructure projects, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act of 2004 removed yet more citizens’ rights to control their own environment to accommodate or provide for population growth (whether by natural increase or net inward migration) that could easily have been prevented had governments acted on the recommendations of a government appointed Population Panel in 1973, which said that “Britain must face the fact that its population cannot go on increasing indefinitely”, and called on the government of the day to “define its attitude to questions concerning the level and rate of increase of population”. Powers to delay development have been replaced by powers to speed it up using a concept of ‘planning gain’ which assumes that most development can yield a ‘gain’ to the local population. A range of planning guidance measures has been introduced, designed to help developers to get planning applications accepted more quickly, and to reduce the time and money available for the public to resist them.

Yet more rights to protect the countryside may be eroded by measures that allow developers to pay ‘fees’ to local councils to award quicker planning permission for development. The erosion of these rights is a direct result of growing population pressure on a finite supply of land. The Act will affect not only the countryside but also the suburbs, by designating private gardens as ‘brownfield’ (already developed) land available for high density development. Rights have also been eroded by the creation of Regional (political and planning) Assemblies which have power over local authorities.



The concept of sustainable development has been misunderstood. Building new ecofriendly housing is no answer to the UK’s environmental problems on its own. If this concept is used simply to build more homes to accommodate a perpetually growing population, with the extra infrastructure needed to go with the extra people, “sustainable development” can only result in lower quality of life for all its inhabitants.


Other proposed solutions can only slow the process of urbanisation. For example, empty homes can be used to house the homeless, and legislation has been introduced to allow councils to force owners of vacant properties to offer them to homeless people on councilwaiting lists. In 2005-6, according to the Empty Homes Agency, there were about 290,000 ‘longterm’ empty homes in England alone, of which some 10-20,000 a year were successfully used to provide extra housing. While there is potential to increase this number, 20,000 homes would be filled up in a few weeks by a UK population rising by more than 320,000 a year.


Housing people at higher densities brings some environmental benefits:for example, it can reduce transport impacts by enabling people to walk to school or work. And if more people share a home, they will reduce demand for household energy.

Nationwide application of this principle without stabilising overall population numbers, however, is based on lack of understanding of the overall resource demands and impacts on their surrounding environment of increasing numbers of individual human beings in a finite space (the UK) over the long term. A 10% improvement in environmental impacts achieved by housing 500 people living at higher density, would be wiped out by the addition of another 50 people to overall numbers. More than that, the additional 50 people would create demand for additional infrastructure, and therefore further loss of land to development.

All this means that by 2050 there will be few non-urbanised landscapes left in England, and the pressures on National Parks and still unspoilt rural areas of Scotland and Wales would become severe. A population stabilisation and gradual reduction policy, alongside strict planning controls and the provision of affordable housing, is, OPT maintains, sensible and necessary to avoid this outcome.



Successive governments and developers have countered public disquiet about overpopulation by pointing out that less than 15% of the UK’s land area of 24 million hectares is urbanised, suggesting that continuous population growth can easily be accommodated. This is based on a concept of biologically productive land as inert space, not as a natural resource needed to provide healthy supporting ecosystems for food, water supply and renewable energy. It assumes that a citizen’s environmental impact occurs only inside the home. It also fails to take into account the land, sea and atmosphere needed to absorb the impacts of a population’s wastes, including greenhouse gas emissions.

Ecological foot-printing demonstrates that the UK is living far beyond its environmentally sustainable limits. The effects of 60.5 million people with 21st century lifestyles on their own habitat are already clear to all -rising housing and land prices, congestion, road pricing, water shortages, insufficient land for renewable energy production, rising carbon emissions, and many more.

Source: Land by agricultural and other uses: 1998 and 2005, Land and Land Use, e

Digest Statistics, DEFRA 3 October 2006.


The UK does not need to be wholly self-sufficient in food, but with population continuing to grow, urbanisation eating up farmland, and more of our remaining agricultural land likely to be needed for energy crops, food production will be further squeezed. This process is taking place as many countries providing imported food are also suffering environmental degradation and agricultural land loss, and in the knowledge that unnecessarily imported food contributes to greenhouse gas emissions by increasing transport aviation. According to the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs, UK self-sufficiency in food fell from 71.1% to 60% (of all food) between 1988 and 2005, and from 82.6% to 73.3% (of ‘indigenous type food’) during the same period. Europe’s agricultural land is also under threat -in 2000 the European Environment Agency concluded that Europe’s soil resources were being irreversibly lost and degraded at an unprecedented rate.


The effects of extra demand on static or diminishing supplies of water are plain for all to see: more frequent drought, pressure to build more reservoirs, and the introduction of water metering, particularly in the south-east of England.


Some 5,000 years ago, forest and woodland covered most of the UK. As humans began to settle and farm the land in greater numbers from the Middle Ages onward, they cleared the land of trees to create pasture. By the end of the 20th century, after rapid industrialisation and population growth, trees grew on less than 10% of our land -an amount that has risen slightly in recent years to reach nearly 12% in 2005 (see Table 4.1 above). From the environmental point of view, a better use of ‘surplus’ agricultural land than built development would be planting of more forest and woodland, which would help to absorb carbon dioxide emissions and produce bio-energy crops such as coppiced willow. –


Waste disposal and treatment for growing populations mean more waste production, more infrastructure to deal with disposal and treatment, and more greenhouse gas emissions. Total waste produced in the UK from agriculture, minerals mining and quarrying, sewage sludge, dredged material, municipal waste (mostly household waste), commercial, industrial and demolition and construction waste reached 335 million tonnes in 2002 (about 5.6 tonnes a year for each person in the UK). Household waste reached 31 million tonnes in 2003 -nearly half a tonne per person. “The longer term trend is still for waste growth with total municipal waste increasing by 0.5% per annum on average over the last five years,” according to DEFRA. Changing consumption patterns reflecting higher material living standards are causes which can be mitigated by changing habits and better recycling, but the 2000-06 rate of increase in municipal waste exactly matches that of population growth. As each individual recycles more of his or her own waste, success is undermined by the constantly increasing numbers of people who create waste.


Calculations such as the ones above do not appear to enter government policy-making since no government minister, department or agency is yet responsible for population policy in relation to the environment. Policy making by the Treasury has worked usually on the assumption that increasing numbers of people lead to an increase in tax receipts which can be used, for example, for spending on extra landfill sites and waste processing systems. However, this approach does not take into account the growing pressure on the UK’s finite amount of land, with consequent cost inflation which rises as the amount of available land decreases – a case of diminishing returns.


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