Planning regulation in the UK is set to be relaxed, allowing more homes to be built for the millions who can’t afford them at the moment. Planning minister Nick Boles recently evoked the right of every Brit to own a house with a small garden in his plans to increase the amount of land available for development from 9% of England to 12%.
It doesn’t sound like much when you put it like that. But that 3 percentage point difference represents nearly 4,000 square kilometre, an area around the size of Suffolk. Or French Polynesia if you’re feeling adventurous.
This is a big chunk of an already human dominated landscape. The UK has one of the highest population densities in Europe and more than 60% of the landscape is given over to farming and urban areas.
Pressure groups like the Campaign for Rural for Rural England have objected to the recent changes in planning regulation but have been characterised as selfish, small-minded NIMBYs.
However, there has been little mention of nature or biodiversity as part of this debate. If we want to debate this it is important we ask how we should plan our settlements to cause least harm to nature.
Similarity to debates on agriculture
In many ways this is similar to debates on land sparing versus land sharing in agriculture or to some extent the debates on strategies for energy production. We should be looking to divide our landscape up in a way that benefits society and balance this with the need to protect biodiversity.
I am constantly amazed that this issue is barely discussed with regard to town planning.
Should we live in settlements that cover large areas, that are spread out and have gardens? Should we live in settlements that are dense, most people living in flats and fewer private gardens but with more public spaces? Or should we do something in between?
I tend to think that more intensive housing would probably be a quite good thing, the UK’s cities are already sprawling (though not like the US) and messy. It would probably bring biodiversity benefits as cities would have a smaller geographic, and carbon, footprint. However, there is very little primary research out there to base my opinions on, so at the moment I’m largely speculating.
For example the city I visit most outside of the UK is Bilbao which has a population of around 400,000, with a population density nearly twice that of London. This means you can more or less walk to the countryside from the city since it doesn’t spill out all over the place. This should benefit species that are specialists that might be sensitive to alteration of their environment by humans and would therefore suffer as a result of large suburban areas.
Most people in the UK don’t share my views. The majority of people probably want a house with a garden in a suburb somewhere. They also associate flats with poverty or old age, neither of which are exactly positive selling points.
None of these solutions will suddenly make the UK into a paradise for nature. Britain still has a population density twice that of its nearest neighbour France and is only topped by the Netherlands and Belgium in Europe.
We should, though, be thinking more strategically about how we plan our settlements. But before we get ahead of ourselves we need to carry out more work looking at how the density of settlements can affect biodiversity.