1300 lost villages

Here is my latest Countryman column.

It is sometimes hard to separate our love of all things countryside from our propensity for nostalgia.

Perhaps this is because while most of us now live in towns and cities, we came from the countryside, however many generations back. Or perhaps it is because it is pleasanter to think of the milk maids of Hardy’s Wessex or a picturesque old windmill than a modern milking shed or wind turbine.

But another reason may be our sense that countryside is disappearing quite rapidly. The extent of this loss can be captured by land use statistics, sometimes converted into statements that ‘we are losing each year an area of countryside the size of Southampton/ Leicester etc.’ CPRE has produced quite a few of those over the years.

These statistics always seem pretty shocking to me, but they do not shock everyone. After all, in spite of the loss we still have a good deal of countryside left: any long train journey will tell you that. That is why anti-conservationists are so comfortable saying ‘we only need build on one or two percent of countryside to meet housing need’ – as if it was that simple.

Land use statistics are abstract. What matters is people’s experience of the countryside. If a couple of small fields are developed, that will not make a dent in the statistics, but it matters hugely to people for whom those few fields are the countryside as they experience it every day.

Development can destroy the sense of rurality. As Nicholas Schoon wrote in CPRE’s Building on Barker: “As an area becomes increasingly built up, it looks, sounds, feels and smells less and less like countryside. It becomes harder and harder for people – most of them living in towns and cities – to ‘get away from it all’ because traffic and built development are closer and closer at hand. An area can no longer be perceived long before half of its surface is covered by development.”

An alternative way of looking at the loss of countryside can be found in the 2011 Rural-Urban Classification for Small Area Geographies. This obscure Office of National Statistics report, unearthed by Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Leake, shows that more than 1300 villages in England and Wales (mostly in southern England) disappeared in the first decade of the century. What a shocking statistic!

According to the report, the declassification of a village “usually occurred where a town or city’s fringe expanded… Rarely did it result from ‘organic growth’ of a village.” Housing has played a part, as have new roads and the ugly sheds they attract. Little of this loss was intended, in the sense that it was set out in a democratically agreed local plan. But we know the villages are under greater pressure now than ever before. There will have been no let-up in the rate of loss since 2011.

The loss of more than 1300 villages should act as a wake-up call for the Government as it prepares its Housing White Paper. In particular, I hope that Theresa May will ask what is going on. The Prime Minister is a proud villager, a worshipper at her local church, a user of the village hall. That is good. But how many more villages will cease to be villages unless the Government takes steps to plan development in a much more sustainable way?


5 Responses to “1300 lost villages”

  1. 1 johncroxen December 15, 2016 at 11:09 am

    Reblogged this on croxen and commented:
    The answer to the pressure on the countryside is not simple. One of the problems is that many people are moving out of many cities and towns because housing is unaffordable. Government needs to tackle that. Another problem is that we have no national or regional planning any more. So lots of too small authorities are forced to find land for housing in their areas when a better solution might be a new town. Well planned such towns can provide jobs, housing, schools and good transport infrastructure. And not another Milton Keynes with its centre too far from buses and trains, and with its little enclaves surrounded by roads and roundabouts, with infrequent buses and the need to use a car to move around. There are solutions. Sadly, not many in our Parliament seem to be even talking about them.

  2. 2 New Moons For Old December 15, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    At this time of year, we begin to be inundated with important messages. This is one of them. There is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between planning for a real rural future, sustainable on all levels, and the life of any government. MPs will always be guilty of short-term thinking, whilst the solutions need someone to look both backward and forward on the longest terms possible.

  3. 3 stella shackle December 16, 2016 at 11:49 am

    I moved into my village of Blofield, in Norfolk, 45 years ago – and yes it was a true village, where everyone knew and helped each other. The Joint Core Strategy recommended an increase in housing stock of 50* properties -yes the asterisk can mean anything, and in this case we have approved planning applications for nearly 500 properties – mostly expensive 4 bedroom houses – not the social and truly affordable houses we want.
    Basically the developers rule, and can get away with whatever they want. We are now being told we will have two large supermarkets within a few hundred yards of each other – sadly nobody considers the overall infrastructure, and the inadequate country lanes across the UK, not just Norfolk, that now have to cope with HGVs.
    I know that District Councils don’t want these massive and ugly developments, but their hands appear to ‘be tied’. They have to financially contribute to the Planning Inspectorate appeals, which are costly. I think if the developers had to pay all the costs involved, they might reconsider – what do you think.

    • 4 sspiers December 16, 2016 at 12:11 pm

      Stella, thank you for your comment. I’m afraid it’s sadly familiar tale, particularly the fact that your village is getting big houses for sale rather than affordable homes.

      Your district council may want to resist supermarket planning applications, but it is possible that it is tempted by the business rates it will receive. Local authorities are so cash strapped that they often only balance their books by agreeing to development, however damaging and unsustainable. If the local authority has a good local plan in place, particularly if it includes a retail strategy, it should be able to resist inappropriate applications from supermarkets (though of course, these businesses have deep pockets and are skilled at ‘working’ the planning system).

  4. 5 Steve February 8, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Sometimes I think we are building houses for the sake of targets. It appears that we have been given a target number of houses for our locality which are not related to need. I am sure there are some areas with major shortfall in housing stock so let’s build there. In our locality there is no apparent need for more houses. If new houses are built then the nearest employment is likely to be 15 miles away which makes no sense. Lastly I am not sure who will build all these houses given that the construction industry already struggles to fill posts. I feel the real answer is for the government to have a real regional strategy so that jobs move to areas such as the north east where they have brownfield sites and vacant houses.

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