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Lies, damned lies, and countryside statistics

Lies, damned lies, and countryside statistics

How much of England is built on? It’s a compelling question, and one that is actually surprisingly difficult to answer. It’s also a question that rears its head in emotive debates about the balance to be struck between protecting our countryside and tackling the housing crisis.

It’s often said that development only occupies a very small percentage of England’s total land surface area, and this idea is often used to play down the risk that faces our countryside and justify the release of more land to urban development. Last year, the Royal Statistical Society gave its ‘Statistic Of The Year’ title to a figure from the work of Professor Alasdair Rae at the University of Sheffield that uses satellite data to show that just ‘0.1% of the area of United Kingdom land area is densely built upon’. You might think that this doesn’t sound a lot, (and it doesn’t), but it doesn’t quite tell the full story.

The 0.1% figure refers to land that is designated as ‘continuous urban fabric’ - land that is 80-100% built on. Continuous urban fabric is actually a very rare land use in the UK, blessed as we are with relatively green cities. Suburban areas with lots of parks and large gardens would not register under this measure, but few would argue that these areas are not developed; they’re certainly not countryside.

A more representative picture emerges if you take all of the classifications of urban land, such as roads, rail, airports and other infrastructure (8.8% of England’s area), and urban greenspace (which includes gardens, allotments, parks etc, and represents 3.8%). While parkland and gardens provide welcome respite from the city, they are usually unmistakably urban, being surrounded by built development and often scattered with permanent structures and hard surfaces. Taking these classifications together, Professor Rae’s study shows that urban, or developed, landscapes take up 12.6% of the land area of England.

But we think we need to address England’s urbanisation even further. After all, it’s not just the losses caused by the physical ‘footprint’ of development that we should be worried about.

In 2007, we produced a series of ‘intrusion maps’ that quantified the amount of England that is affected by the presence of noise and visual disturbance from urban areas, transport and energy infrastructure. We found that the sights and sounds of development disturb half of England’s land area - up from just 26% in the early 1960s. At this rate, undisturbed countryside would have all but disappeared in England by the end of the century.

This data matters; land is a finite resource, and we need to use it efficiently and responsibly to ensure we can protect our countryside, with the many economic, social and environmental benefits this provides, whilst building the houses we so clearly need. The BBC’s Mark Easton has highlighted this issue in a series of blogs exploring land use in Britain, and he is right when he says: ‘it is vital that we have a national conversation about the way we protect and enhance our vital green spaces as population grows.’

Our urban areas are fast expanding, and England’s sprawling cities are eating up our green spaces. According to the Government’s land use change statistics, we have lost around 50,000 hectares of previously undeveloped land to development since 2013 – that’s an area roughly a third of the size of London. This loss has accelerated in recent years under the National Planning Policy Framework (the Government’s planning guidance for England), and the removal of targets to encourage higher density housing and more use of brownfield land.

It’s clear that the landscape of our country is changing and countryside is being lost, and we need an urgent, nationwide conversation about what this means for us, personally and nationally.

In his latest piece, Mark Easton argues that ‘we must open our eyes and minds to the true geography of the UK’ if we are to ‘have an informed and rational debate’ about issues like housing policy. We must avoid the temptation to give too much weight to individual, headline-grabbing statistics when deciding how to make the best use of our finite land resources. The reservoir of natural resources that our undeveloped land represents has never been more important as we deal with critical issues, from climate change to mental health, obesity and fresh food. So, when the wider trends reveal that England is a rapidly urbanising landscape, and that this change is accelerating, we cannot afford to be complacent about building on more of our countryside. Disappointingly, the Government’s long-anticipated 25-year Environment Plan does little to address the issue of land loss; in fact it largely glides over it.

CPRE has always accepted that some green fields will have to be built on to meet the needs of the population – particularly for genuinely affordable rural housing, of which there is a real shortage. However, if we are to build on undeveloped land, which should always be a last resort to meet local housing need, we must make the best possible use of the limited land we have, and ensure that the homes built meet the needs of local families in terms of size and affordability.

Our analysis, referred to in The Times, shows that despite building 15% fewer homes than a decade ago, developers are using twice as much greenfield land to build them – a hugely profligate use of our precious countryside.

The greatest block to tackling the housing crisis does not come from environmental campaigners overestimating the amount of densely developed land. It comes from the lack of action to develop the thousands of suitable brownfield sites that could provide over a million homes close to jobs, services and existing infrastructure, and from the largest housing developers, whose profits are best served by building a smaller number of larger homes on greenfield sites.

The greatest block to tackling the housing crisis comes from the lack of action to develop the thousands of suitable brownfield sites that could provide over a million homes, and from the largest housing developers, whose profits are best served by building a smaller number of larger homes on greenfield sites.

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