What are seen as the controversies around converting land from agriculture to housing?
The value of UK Green Belt and agricultural lands is undisputed. But the environmental costs of modern farming and housing needs are part of the conversation as well.
Anybody considering making an alternative investment in strategic land will know that Britain unquestionably needs more homes to accommodate a growing population. According to the Office for National Statistics, more than 4.4 million homes should be built by 2016, largely in response to two factors: A decennial growth rate of 7 percent, as measured in Census 2011, and lagging new home construction that fails to keep up with this population increase, largely attributed to the stringent lending standards of banks following the 2008 economic crisis.
At least one group claims the solution is to build on Green Belt land. The Policy Exchange, a centre-right think tank, said in late 2012 that the supply of land near cities that is kept unbuilt is a drag on the housing market. They argue that swaths of English countryside that typically surround towns should be opened up for development. The fourteen Green Belts in England cover about 13 percent of the country, enveloping about 60 percent of Britain’s population (about 30 million people).
The Policy Exchange faces plenty of headwind in its positions. Since the “garden city movement” of the early 20th century, the effort to combat urban sprawl led by such groups as the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the London County Council sought to maintain open spaces dedicated to recreation, forests and agriculture as a social good. But the Town and Country Planning Association has proposed since 2002 the adoption of more flexible policies toward Green Belt lands, suggesting that instead of a growth-stifling “belt,” that “wedges” and “strategic gaps” might allow a natural expansion of urban areas.
Famously, the head of Natural England, whose charge is entirely to ensure protection and improvement of flora and fauna, said in 2007 “we need a 21st century solution to England’s housing needs which puts in place a network of green wedges, gaps and corridors, linking the natural environment and people.”
Agricultural land outside of Green Belts
Of course, land away from the major cities is green as well, much of it in use for agricultural, forestry and recreational purposes. More than 80 percent of the landmass in England and Wales, 12 million hectares, are used for farming and forestry. Local planning authorities can more easily rezone the lands outside Green Belts when market factors, such as the demand for housing development, call for it. Since 2000, about 1500 hectares of agricultural land has been converted to housing development every year.
Of course, similar sentiments understandably still exist relative to the bucolic perceptions of farming in the U.K. But environmentalists take exception to how modern agricultural methods, which include excessive application of fertilisers, can actually burden nature with its by-products:
• Toxic build-up. 100 million tonnes of sewage sludge, compost and livestock manures applied annually to agricultural lands is leading to a build-up of potentially toxic elements such as zinc and copper, and more than half of sensitive wildlife habitat experiences harmful acid and nitrogen pollution, according to a paper published by Environment Agency UK.
• Loss of soil. About 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil is lost each year due to intensive cultivation, some of which is instigated by compaction from heavy machinery and livestock, which precludes plant growth and leads to runoff in rain. (source: Environment Agency UK). To be fair, some runoff is noted as well from building sites before landscaping is completed.
• Water quality compromised. About 70 percent of sediments found in water come from agriculture, and those sediments can carry metals, pathogens, pesticides and phosphates.
Such problems due to modern agriculture plague the planet, as similar pollution levels are reported throughout Europe, Asia, North America and Australia. Africa, Brazil and Argentina, the newer frontiers for agriculture, are expanding arable croplands to meet global food demands but also exhibit a host of environmental sins.
The food-housing tug
There is no denying that the housing needs in the UK must be met – and soon. A whole generation of families are postponing children or living in cramped quarters, awaiting homes they can afford or at least rent to accommodate their members.
But Brits need to eat as much as sleep. So how to balance the use of land for each?
A number of approaches are being tested. One is to encourage development of so-called brownfield lands, which include properties that may require remediation from previous industrial uses. These lands are often within towns or immediately adjacent to them, some with excellent access to existing urban infrastructure while others are cost-prohibitive for a variety of reasons (no existing infrastructure, undesirable locations for housing or extensive environmental remediation required).
SustainableBuild.co.uk is a web publisher that considers the balance between development and environmental sustainability from a very pragmatic standpoint. The site offers several points on how land conversions to development can have a negative effect, which include: converted greenfields are quite unlikely to be converted back to nature; there is inevitable loss of habitat for animals and plants; a loss of employment for agricultural workers; and a loss of Green Belt land that provides geographical definitions and separations of cities, towns, villages and hamlets (I.e., American-style urban sprawl).
Answering the problem of diminishing agricultural lands is a nascent movement to small-scale, organic agriculture on greenfield lands. SustainableBuild notes, “There are greenfield sites that are not being used for any purpose, for whatever reason. Development must consider all human and environmental factors, not just consume land and space for short-term solutions. A sustainable vision would look at all the options for land use, human population expansion, urban sprawl, economic considerations as well as environmental needs.”
Which, in a country with a growing population and a concurrent appreciation for the environment, is perhaps the most realistic and pragmatic approach.