Kevin McCloud on our desire for light and space and the battle to access the green belt

Our editor-at-large considers our desire for light and space and the battle to access the green belt.

By Hannah Fenton | 28 March 2017

Our editor-at-large considers our desire for light and space and the battle to access the green belt.

Kevin McCloud on Our desire for light and space and the battle to access the green belt 1

The idea of development remains an anathema to most Brits. We’re a nation of conservationists. We are also, in England, now the most populous country in Europe – with 395 people per square kilometre – and have always struggled to accommodate our population and our conservative, nature-loving instinct on the same island. That instinct is expressed in a sentimental attachment to natural beauty, to the poems of Wordsworth, the landscape of the National Trust and the green belts of land that are enshrined in planning law, acting as the restraining rings around the girth of our towns. And it is that instinct that led to the growth of ‘garden cities’ in the early 1900s and is now leading our government to build more garden villages, towns and cities. Exactly the same development as normal, we suspect, but with some more trees.

But what bit of countryside are we aiming to reproduce? The naturalist Simon King gave a talk recently and said every time he looks at English countryside, he can only think of the sterility of the farm land, the paucity of species that live there and the way we employ fossil fuels and their products (diesel, plastics and chemicals) as the principle agents of control in what we mistakenly think of as a natural world. That description somewhat takes the shine off a pretty postcard of rolling fields and sheep.

As the ecologists Dirk Maxeiner and Michael Miersch put it: ‘Plants and animals are conquering the cities simply because the country is becoming an evermore inhospitable place for them. The vast agricultural landscapes of central Europe no longer provide them with space to live. The main problem is over-fertilised soils, only suitable for plants that can cope with high concentrations of nitrogen. One example of this is the dandelion, which has become the dominant flower in many areas. However, diversity – and this is the fundamental rule of ecology – only develops through scarcity. Farming is very different from how it used to be a hundred years ago. While biodiversity in settled areas is on the rise, it is diminishing in agricultural areas.’

And access for humans can be as scarce as it is for squirrels and lady’s smock. We feel we should enjoy the right to roam but, in truth, this is only possible in wildernesses – the national parks and mountains where someone’s livelihood is not dependent on a maximum acreage of crop being gathered in. In truth, the battle for ownership and control of the green belts was won a long time ago by agricultural businesses. We can look at it out of our car window as we drive past, which is about as much as is worth doing because the view is no less sterile than the experience of walking through it. And in health terms, possibly a lot safer.