Pulling Together

Avoiding complexity with a right Royal mess

Nearly a fortnight into the New Year I find myself writing the first of my musings and looking back on momentous developments since January began. Yet none of those seem to matter to the British media at present. Instead, they preoccupy themselves with internal arrangements within the Royal Family which probably have no bearing on the rest of us and are surely of little interest to anyone outside the journalistic bubble.

During that time we have seen the killing by the American government of a senior member of the Iranian government, even though those countries are not officially at war, the shooting down by Iranian forces of a Ukranian airliner carrying mostly Iranian passengers, much unreported suffering in Syria, Israel and Palestine, Congo and many other places which do not matter to British media so we’re just not told about them. Global economic life with its consequences for the natural world and our own environment continues apace, but that was news a couple of weeks ago so is now largely forgotten. This is the state of the world and the state of the Public in terms of the knowledge on which we will base our votes.

Here, I must declare an interest, for I live in a ward with a by-election for my local Council coming up this week. Of the four parties fielding candidates three have contacted me so far. Both Conservatives and Labour claim credit for keeping the local library open and pledge to continue to fight for that against the Mayor. (Only the Tories mention that he’s a Labour mayor.) Both also want better bus services and the re-opening of the long-closed and demolished railway station. They differ only on one issue so far as their election addresses go. The Conservatives want to preserve the local green spaces and the Labour candidate wants to build more homes. In the absolute sense these are mutually exclusive, of course, so that is what the election is really about: do we want to preserve our green spaces or cover them with houses? Do we want fewer homeless people or fresh air and fields? What sort of country do we want: one with recreational space and quiet country roads to which we can escape the busy-ness of modern life, or one where everyone has their own house and garden but there is nowhere else to go? It’s a hard choice.

Of course, it is possible to compromise. I live about half a mile from a commercial trading estate of small factories, workshops, warehouses and wholesalers and between that and my house there are some trapped poor-quality pastoral fields used only, so far as I can see, for grazing a small number of horses. They are earmarked for housing in the medium term and would probably be good for that. Further away is an area of Green Belt which is scheduled for cancellation and housebuilding first and I regard that as a dangerous precedent.

I could accept the building on the green fields hemmed in by existing development. It would be a shame to lose them, of course, but there’s little logic in keeping an area of relatively unproductive grassland with no food or recreational value surrounded by houses, schools and light industry. Filling it in would make little difference to the countryside and provide some much-needed homes. The cancelling of Green Belt, however, seems to defeat its entire purpose. If Green Belt can be cancelled it might as well not exist at all.

Of course, the Green Belt is only Green Belt because it has been defined as such in law, and laws can be altered, so there’s no legal problem in changing its status. It’s the political and moral message promoted by such an action which worries me. The purpose of the Green Belt is to prevent suburban sprawl filling our small overcrowded island. If it can be moved it can prevent nothing, until the only countryside left will be a small strip of Green separating the continuous cityscape England would become. Where would people go to walk, ride bicyles, watch wildlife or seek solitude? Where would we go to escape the traffic and the pollution? How would we find space to be ourselves and to discover nature? Where would other species live? The rats would doubtless do well out of it, but what about the hedgehogs or the toads?

I am aware, naturally, of the argument that we are not overcrowded. I have heard the statistic that only 4% of the UK’s land area is covered by residential property, and only 1.5% by residential buildings. That sounds so encouraging until one considers about 90% of the UK population lives in England; that Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are relatively empty. That suggests the figure for England is more like 6.7%. That is just for the population’s dwellings. On top of that, land will be needed for office space, schools, hospitals, food production, transport, shops, car parking, leisure activities and all the other needs a population has. By the time one has added all those requirements it becomes much easier to understand people need far more land to support them than the space taken up by their own properties. A satellite picture of the UK will show that in England around 15-20% of the land is urban in one form or another. With the exception of places like Hong Kong or Singapore, we are one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

It is probably difficult to assess the exact size of the homelessness problem because homeless people are to some extent hidden from social research. Rough sleepers can be counted inaccurately because with no fixed abode they can move around so may be missed or counted twice. Other people might not show up as homeless because they stay with friends, making them less visible and harder to categorise. That means it is difficult to know how many extra houses are needed. The popular estimate of 300,000 per year would clearly be unsustainable as that equates to a town the size of Bristol every year and rural England would rapidly disappear if building took place on that scale. Houses have already been built in unsuitable locations such as flood plains.

That statistic has largely been driven by immigration, which is another hot potato. People worry that concern about the growing population could spill over into hatred of foreigners. That is a danger we need to resist. On the other hand, it would be foolish to think we could solve the problem by building our way out of it. We need to tackle the underlying causes or we will just ruin our environment trying to catch up. The drivers of migration around the world are many and complex. Social customs around arranged marriages, refugees fleeing persecution or war, political dogma about free movement have all played their part. The more mobile people become, the more mobility they need as families become dispersed across the world. That complicates things too. It could be argued what we need is a more stable less mobile world, but that too is easier said than done.

Ever since human beings began we have expanded our numbers, reach, and activity. It is a pattern of life which has served us well in the past. We know no other way. Only now is it becoming unsustainable and thinking people realise we need to change. The problem is, how do we change when this is all we know? Finding an answer to that one might be our highest priority, but I suspect many leaders would rather just hope it is not happening, and concentrate on the private lives of minor royals instead.

Full List