Heritage loss, sentimentality and survival

The built environment

In 1941, Vita Sackville-West was commissioned to write an extended essay on ‘English Country Houses’. During some of the darkest days of the Second World War, she wrote: “Fortunate in her domestic history, it seems likely that England (if in accordance with her tradition she escapes invasion in the present war) will witness the gradual destruction of her lovely inheritance by economic rather than violent means”.

This prediction was fulfilled post-war, not just in England or among country houses, but in towns and cities in all four countries of the UK. The British entertainer Leslie Sarony was moved to write:

 “Ave you ’ad a look at London lately?

I ’ave, and it breaks my flipping ’eart.

Wiv bloomin’ great big bulldozers, giant ’ammers, blinkin’ drills,

Cor blimey, mate, they’re tearin’ it apart!”

Should we have been more on the ball at the time and prevented much of this destruction, or was any such attachment to the past then, or since, just sentimentality getting in the way of progress and improvement?

The rural environment

The same question could be asked about our landscape and wildlife – our rural and natural heritage. In the 1940s, the existential threat to us came from world war; today it comes from the combination of global climate change and biodiversity collapse as a result of human and, especially, our economic activity. We are revising our attitude towards the rest of nature, but still not fast enough.

Take the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), for example. Dotted around the Commissioners’ CVs are some encouraging green credentials, but the NIC’s remit leads to an inevitable bias towards the demands of traditional, linear economic growth.

On the ‘What We Do’ page of its website, it says: “The Commission’s role does not cover housing (as a distinct area), social infrastructure, land use or agriculture”.

The NIC’s ten-member Design Group comprises four architects/urban designers, three engineers, a lawyer and, more helpfully, two landscape architects, but no biodiversity or agriculture experts.

These are extraordinary omissions. Agriculture occupies between two-thirds and three-quarters of our land area, and is essential for food production and security, increasingly for energy (from green gas from grass to energy crops such as miscanthus), and for nature recovery, on all of which our own well-being and survival depend.

This category of land use is surely the most important infrastructure of all. Road, rail and other types of economic infrastructure are eating into it with an increasingly adverse impact. Priorities in land use need to be reversed.

I recently sent a Freedom of Information request to the Office for National Statistics, asking if their figure of 8% as the percentage of the UK classified as urban included major roads running through rural areas. They explained the difficulty of arriving at an agreed definition of what counted as “urban” in Natural Capital accounting and thought the figure might even be lower than 8%, which does not sound too much, on the face of it.

But they also said that the 8% excluded “a lot of infrastructure, industry and lone houses”. I would argue that the first two certainly constitute urbanisation, insofar as they remove land from rural use.

Maths is not my strongpoint, but if I have calculated correctly, the M40 alone covers over five square kilometres. Again, this does not sound much until you realise that it equates to 1,275 football pitches. That’s a lot of land with no food production or nature recovery (except potentially on the verges).

Furthermore, the detrimental effect of roads in particular is not limited to the physical space they occupy; it extends to surrounding air, noise, water and light pollution. Above all, roads form a barrier to wildlife connectivity and desecrate broad areas of natural landscape.

The NIC Commissioners would fulfil a more holistic and constructive role if they approached infrastructure in terms, first and foremost, of best use of increasingly scarce land. As mentioned above, that would mean prioritising agriculture and nature recovery.

If they had been following this approach, HS2 would never have destroyed ancient woodland (although NIC Commissioner Sadie Morgan chairs HS2’s Design Panel). And if they follow this approach in the future, once HS2 is in place, they might give serious consideration to ploughing up the M6 Toll for farmland and natural recovery (although NIC Commissioner Bridget Rosewell is chair of the M6 Toll Company).

Whatever happens next, it is time to continue moving decisively away from the economic attitude identified by Dickens 175 years ago: “The Earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships . . . and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre”.

Nigel Pearce