© 2017 The Harpenden Society
A life-long, non-driving train traveller, I recently tested on a two hour journey from London to Chester a phenomenon I had remarked on over some seventy years.
The countryside is empty.
I watched carefully on both sides of the train as it sped northwards. Just one incident broke the spell. About ten minutes outside of Chester I spotted a woman with two dogs. Apart from the two stopping stations on route, this was the only human being I saw outside the train. Admittedly, much of what I did see was rather unattractive tracts of industrialised agriculture but vast expanses are desolate and unused with little evidence of the countless hordes who supposedly dote on the countryside.
The statistics bear this out. There is a kind of conspiratorial game played which tries, by setting 'urban' against 'rural', to imply they are somehow of equal weight. However, in human terms, a massive majority of the people is crushed into a tiny fraction of the land. Using the fairly high government norm of a settlement population of 10,000, the UK's urban population is 79% rising to 88% if the yardstick is the more sensible 2,000 marker. Put another way, the World Bank figures for 2012 suggested that the rural population of the UK was just 10.1%.
However, it is when the density of urban development is measured that the myth is genuinely confounded. 500 experts examined the national landscape for a major UK National Eco-system Assessment in 2012. In a detailed scrutiny of buildings, roads, railways, paths, car parks etc, they came to the conclusion that only '6.8% of the UK's land area is now classified as urban'. But they also found that 54% of urban districts are, thankfully, 'green space', for example, parks, sports pitches, allotments; 18% is domestic gardens and 6.6% waterways, lakes and reservoirs – and a good thing, too. Thus, they further concluded that '78.6% of urban area is designated natural rather than built'...and that...'the proportion of the English landscape that is built upon is 2.27%'.
So much for the countryside being, as we often hear, 'concreted over'.
In effect, roughly 90% of a rising population is crammed into a small proportion of the available land. It is the towns that are overcrowded not the countryside. The Campaign To Protect Rural England is right to protest against what they calculate to be 150,000 houses planned to be built on green belt – but perhaps right for the wrong reasons. It is because the towns have neither the infrastructure nor the space for infrastructure to service heavy housing development. Harpenden is critically and desperately in need of new schools and is forced to build on green belt as there is no option – and that dilemma is apparent everywhere across the nation. CPRE argue that 1.5m houses could be built on brown field sites, that is, in towns, further raising the pressure on over-used services and local employment opportunities. Once more it is the urban environs that have to take the pressure. Any over-crowding, any resultant social deprivation, seems permissible as long as the countryside is not 'despoiled'.
Surely the huge urban majority could be spared less than one per cent of this vast and under-utilised wilderness, the reality behind the mock-aesthetic dream of a pseudo-Victorian pastoral idyll. Here 50 well-designed 21st century, eco-friendly, attractive new towns might be developed to house up to 2.5m people, with one major bonus a respite for the imbalanced and cramped towns in which so many of us live.
It really is time to Campaign To Protect Urban England.
Please send comments on this article or any other issues raised in this edition to the editor:
Eric Midwinter 37 Bloomfield Rd. Harpenden AL5 4DD
Sub-editor Harry Downie