Heritage is great! Countryside is great! Yes, they are, and we don’t really need Government adverts telling us so, do we? Well, maybe we do, given that the same Government is also telling companies to destroy heritage and the countryside for the sake of the economy.
Built and natural heritage are the biggest draws for visitors to the United Kingdom. Actually these posters aren’t directed at us within the UK. They are from GREAT Britain, a marketing campaign aimed at the rest of the world, and mentioned by Maria Miller in her first speech as Culture minister. The man in the picture is Nick Boles, the Planning Minister. His father, Sir Jack Boles, used to be the head of the National Trust. Boles has just announced that building houses on green fields will create more ‘human happiness’ than preserving fields. Hang on, let me quote him: “The sum of human happiness that is created by the houses that are being built is vastly greater than the economic, social and environmental value of a field that was growing wheat or rape.”
And he warned communities that refuse to relax planning laws that they risk losing their services if their populations shrink too small. So, is that the idea? Towns competing with each other to grow, so that they can have bigger shops and better hospitals, which in turn attract more people? It’s a free market battle of townships and villages. I suppose he imagines that food comes from Tesco rather than from fields?
The Government’s strategy for ‘getting us out of this mess’ is to invest in infrastructure to quickly stimulate jobs and spending power by those working people, so that ‘Britain can compete in the global race’. It does not care what that infrastructure is and what damage it inflicts on heritage and the environment. It also seems not to consider the impacts of winning a global race, which inevitably means inflicting more suffering on the losers, causing more conflict. Nor does it consider that in growing the economy through consumerism, without paying attention to sustainability, you are moving faster into shortages of resources needed to make those goods. (The UN warns that the world is on course to run out of water by 2025, and we could list many more resources under threat.)
The issue I’m focusing on here is that the Government does not care what that infrastructure is and what damage it inflicts, and even more appallingly, it doesn’t even care if there is no proven financial value in it. It only wants to show that it is doing something, fast, to help us compete in the global race, to show that Britain is Great, even if it isn’t any more so much a very united Kingdom.
The National Audit Office issued a report to say that the £20 billion High Speed 2 line would not deliver promised jobs and growth, and would not be value for money. The Highways Agency process of evaluating road building schemes is reported to be seriously flawed. They underestimate the environmental costs and overestimate the financial benefits.
The Government is happy to pay attention to reports commissioned or influenced by industrial lobbyists, such as this Flying into the Future from the aviation industry making the case for expansion of airports. This flies in the face of evidence and communities, because it only extrapolates from trends. It has only one page on the environment and makes no mention of climate change. Their only real basis for airport expansion is that people like to have choice and an easy ride, and if the UK’s airports are less smooth than those in France or Holland, they may choose connecting flights via those other places.
The expansion of Heathrow would threaten the heritage of the ‘Arcadian Thames’ and an entire village of Sipson. The Government thinks that only locals have an interest in heritage lands that are threatened by infrastructure, and see it as a ‘little local problem’, NIMBYs who can be compensated or persuaded. This is because they ignore the following:
- If you destroy Britain’s heritage and countryside, even if in incremental steps, it won’t be GREAT anymore and it won’t attract tourists.
- If your infrastructure increases emissions and reduces the climate adaptation capacity of land, you are contributing to impending national and global disaster that affects us all.
- If your infrastructure reduces our ability to produce our own food, we risk major problems with food insecurity as climate change in future affects the food-growing capacity of other countries we currently depend upon.
- Big infrastructure projects don’t just destroy fields, you are also likely to be destroying hedges, gardens, wetlands and woodlands. These form a fragile patchwork upon which our biodiversity depends. 60% of UK’s species are in serious decline. Human wellbeing depends upon these ecosystem services. And, moreover, ‘human happiness’ is not the only significant consideration – we should also care about the happiness of other species.
So, let’s find ways of showing that heritage and countryside are the most valuable infrastructure we possess. We need to invest in that infrastructure to increase its natural resistance to disease, to increase its diversity of species, to increase its capacity to protect land from floods and storms, to increase local food production and to maintain its beauty for human wellbeing.
And as to the problem of housing infrastructure, realise that the house building policy is more driven by a wish to boost the economy than to house the homeless. Allow more sensitive building of shelters in woodlands, more houseboats, more homes in empty shops and offices, more revamping of empty homes and higher taxes on second homes.