Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Demand for building land

Whenever there is a debate about perceived, or actual, needs for land to build new homes, the pro-building lobby invariably puts the demand into context as a percentage of the land mass of the British Isles. I seem to recall that we need to build at the scale of towns the size of Birmingham on an annual basis for the foreseeable future to accommodate a projected population growth of at least 10 million. What does this really mean in terms of the amount of agricultural land or semi-natural habitat lost to concrete?
The answer is clearly uncertain because various permutations might be used to define land needs. What is clear is that the greatest demand will be within the south and east of England, so the commentators who say 'this only amounts to x or y percent of land in Britain' are being somewhat disingenuous because the vast proportion of the British Isles is unsuitable for building - the sheer practicalities of building and living on the uplands of Scotland, Wales and northern England are too great to contemplate, and new arrivals would not want to live there anyway!  Inevitably, housing needs to be close to where the jobs are, and if that is the case we are not just talking of new housing; we must also factor in land required for factories, shopping centres etc to accommodate the extra 10 million.
I seem to recall figures of around 9% of the land mass of the British Isles is needed to accommodate this projected rise in population. If that is the case, it is probably not 9% of all Britain but nearer 25% of the land in south-east England! That must, in turn, mean that a significant proportion of the remaining semi-natural habitat will be developed.
I find myself absolutely amazed that nobody seems to have picked up on this and translated it into what it might mean for biodiversity. For example, a simple analysis of species-richness of hoverflies shows that southern and eastern England are infinitely richer than anywhere else in the UK and that lowlands and especially coastal lowlands support the greatest number of species. This is all land that will be needed to accommodate the projected growth in population and so we must start to recognise that if it is accepted that there will be a huge rise in population there must be an equal and opposite demise of wildlife.
What is more, it is puzzling that society simply views undeveloped land as a resource for human habitation. There seems to be a huge disconnect between where we live and where our food comes from. It is surely time that this issue was addressed? For a committed nature conservationist such as me, the wildlife issues seem to be of paramount importance, but at a human scale there is an even more compelling argument: if we build on good farmland we have less capacity to support ourselves and so we will become increasingly reliant upon overseas sources. It is therefore not impossible that the importance of oil as a trigger for conflict will be replaced by demand for food. Are we capable of dealing with this or are we sleep-walking towards catastrophe?
In this respect, I wonder which will cause the real collapse of society: food and water shortage or climate change? Examined in proper context, demand for building land in the UK perhaps shifts the urgency of the question towards our ability to feed ourselves. Those who foresee shifts in climate envelopes improving agricultural production in more northerly situations must think twice. The land is much poorer, often with thinner, leached soils at altitudes where the growing season is much shorter. These are no realistic replacement for the agricultural belt of the northern hemisphere. Therefore, demand for housing should be seen as the wake-up call for a growing environmental problem that will not be resolved by further building. We must surely re-examine living modes and look to Chinese and South Korean models where people live in 40 storey tower blocks. It is a decidedly unappealing prospect, but the ongoing expansion into good food producing land is surely too significant to ignore?