Darkness, light – and light-pollution

The ancient religious philosopher Mani believed in a stark dualism between the spiritual world of good and the materialistic world of evil. Manichaeism has predictably since become a clumsy description of any binary dispute.

Perhaps it’s time for a revival of his more sensitive teachings. We do, unfortunately, live at a time of sharply divided opinions on most issues and Natural England chair Tony Juniper was quick to bemoan “oppositional mindsets” arguing “binary choices” on the vexed issue of building houses on England’s green belts in an interview with Fiona Harvey of The Guardian.

According to the interview, he argued that green belts shouldn’t be sacrosanct (they aren’t) and England could end up with less green belt than it has currently, but “better quality greenbelt – that might have more houses in it”.

He must have known his views would explode on planning and development social media as at least appearing to come down firmly on the side of “the builders, not the blockers”. Despite his plea for a “more joined-up view” on green belt development, the development lobby was quick to seize on his remarks as support for adding bits of undeveloped green belt land to the rest of the car-dependent sprawl they lust after.

“If you look at many green belts around England, quite a lot of them are pretty bereft of wildlife,” he told the paper. “They’re not very accessible. Some of them are not producing much food either.”

It’s true there’s a lot of destructive building going on in green belts, but it’s still pretty random and faces some challenges. Labour, scenting power, wants to institutionalise it and has fatally succumbed to the commercial lobbying of the yimby lobby.

Indeed, shadow minister for planning and housing Matthew Pennycook was quick off the mark to retweet the interview and promise a (still to win power) Labour government would:-

  • End the Tory green belt free-for-all
  • Release more low-quality green belt land to meet housing need
  • Protect, enhance and open-up high-quality green belt land.

Much of which was quite near what Tony Juniper allegedly proposed in his interview – and apologies to him if any of it was quoted out of context. (Journalists, eh?).

What is fatally adrift in what Mr Juniper proposed is the belief you can effectively mitigate the air, noise and light pollution, soil-sealing and disturbance that urban development of greenfield land inevitably produces.

“What we need to be doing is thinking more about how we can accommodate high quality nature within and around residential developments, not only in order to meet nature targets, but also in order to promote social wellbeing,” he said. “Because we now know, from a vast body of evidence, that access to green spaces and areas with water is very, very good for people’s well-being.”

Sadly, human “access” may be very, very bad for food and water production, drainage, flood control and natural well-being. Curiously, the development lobby likes to forget such important ecosystem services when development of the most potentially profitable sites – green belts around major cities – for low-density, car-dependent sprawl, is up for grabs.

Mr Juniper’s comments will have antagonised many on the green side of the debate, so again, perhaps he was quoted out of context here (doing our best here, Tony).

“If you look at the economic benefits we get from access to good quality, wildlife-rich green space, the economic value of that goes up in proportion to the amount of people who can reach it,” he was quoted as saying. “Putting woodlands in remote areas is going to have much less social benefit than putting woodlands in areas next to where people live.”

Unfortunately, newly created woodland next to a new chunk of sprawl is likely to feature as the next chunk of sprawl on the developers’ list. Whereas planting trees on upland mineral soils (and encouraging peat-formation on peat soils) could be a game-changer for carbon sequestration.

England’s environmental quangos are in one hell of a bad place – under-resourced, under-staffed, under-supported by legislation and endlessly undermined by ministers and Whitehall. One can’t help feeling, at this point, they’d do better to go down fighting, but Mr Juniper obviously believes in only fighting on a limited range of disputes and managing the rest.

But before Mani’s carefully nuanced “Religion of Light” fully transmogrifies into a wholly antagonistic war between the environment and commercial gain, submerging much of our countryside in “well-designed” street lighting and car ports, perhaps it’s time to step back and think about the environmental and other challenges rapidly coming down the track towards us. The binary choices involved may not be pleasant ones.

Jon Reeds