The contention that ‘if we fail to learn from the mistakes of history we are doomed to repeat them’

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‘Land is a living entity: it is the foundation of all life and it is finite. ‘1 Land is Britain’s most precious and irreplaceable natural resource yet has been under constant pressure to perform profitable uses especially with rapid population growth, and this economic priority has meant neglect, exploitation, and severe mismanagement of our land. Mistakes of land use patterns in Britain have been numerous, costly and unfortunately reoccurring, suggesting that mistakes made in the past have not been learned from.

I will concentrate on three main areas of land use in Britain; forestry, agriculture and urban- highlighting key periods, which have proved detrimental to society and to the sustainability of the environment. The neglect of the Forests in 18th and 19th Century, the implications of over subsidised farming in relation to hedgerows, and the problems associated with high-rise housing in the 1960s and 70s. Although these examples seem broad and inconsistent, all present valuable lessons from which Britain can and should learn from to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Until the end of the 17th Century the history of Britain’s woodlands was largely one of rapid and gradual destruction,’ 2 mainly for Britain’s dependence for naval timber. Forests in Britain occupied almost 60% of the land surface but now occupy only 12%. The decline in woodland management continued in the 18th Century, and there were further waves of ‘heavy fellings in the Seven Years War of 1756-63. 3 Attitudes changed and much forest areas in the late 18th Century were disafforested, enclosed and ‘improved,’ as ecological decline set in woodlands through inadequate crown management. The 19th Century brought further neglect as coal replaced wood for fuel and brick replaced timber for building material. The acceleration of globalisation and connections of international markets ensured a cheaper supply of timber to Britain too.

This period portrays purely an economic relationship with the purpose and function of forests in Britain. Even the afforestation periods that followed were motivated by the acute timber supply problems that accompanied WWI. We do not see the people in Britain learning from this mistake of neglect, as the Forestry Commission set up in 1919 continued to look at forests as productive rural landscape, and were responsible for destroying between a half and a third of all remaining ancient woodland in the 30 years after WWII.

The change of attitude is needed in Britain, so that we recognise the aesthetic, environmental and recreational value of lowland woods. Forests provide opportunities for walking, cycling, horse riding, orienteering, camping, caravanning, fishing, bird watching and we need to continue to promote these activities to ensure that neglect of forests will not become a mistake in the future. This is not the responsibility of only the Forestry Commission, but also needs to be educated to the future generations in schools.

Outdoors recreational activities in forests has not been utilised for younger generations, and greater awareness and access would ensure that neglect of our forests will not become a reoccurring mistake, due to greater incentives than purely the economic function of forests. The rural landscape is dominated by agriculture and comprises 73% of land use in Britain. Farmers play an essential role in managing the fabric of the countryside. The CAP has promoted over-subsided farming since WWII and has continued to ruin the landscape in various ways.

Modern farm machinery is used most efficiently on large fields, so there has been relentless pressure to uproot traditional hedge field boundaries. From 1984 and 1990 hedgerows lengths in Britain decreased by an estimated 150,000 kilometres. 4 This was a dreadful mistake due to the significance that field boundaries play in the rural landscape. They provide vital habitats for local mammals, birds and plants and serve as ‘reservoirs of biodiversity. 5 Although the restoration of degraded hedges and planting of new ones are now attempting to offset the decline of hedgerows, it is too little, too late and this mistake of land use in Britain seems permanently damaging. Greater pressure to reform of the CAP is needed to ensure similar exploitation and neglect is prevented in the future. Changing incentives away from over production towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly conduct of farming is needed.

Perhaps agricultural subsidies need to be more equitably distributed to sustain small farmers especially in the Lake District and west Cornwall, as these maintain traditional field-systems rather than ‘indulge in the excesses of agri-business. ‘6 Diversification into agri-tourism seems a likely development in the future so that farmers remain custodians of the countryside. Financial support and advice needs to be supplied to British Farmers so they can accommodate tourism whilst promoting the countryside for visitors- facilities, historic attractions, paths and byways, accommodation and of course food.

This would ensure a more sustainable and even more lucrative use of rural land in the future. Residential land use has and will remain a constant feature of Britain’s urban environments as the population on our ‘overcrowded,’ small island increases. High-rise housing was first used in Britain as part of the urban renewal of inner city areas in the 1960s and 70s. Terraced slum housing was demolished and the families were housed in new apartment blocks, a good example being the high-rise housing at Red Road, in the Gorbals (Glasgow).

There have been many problems with this kind of housing in British Cities. The most significant problem was that the tower blocks were built hastily and with sub-standard materials, causing rapid decay and frequent problems such as damp and draughts. Poor maintenance and inadequate planning meant that they were visually unattractive and were inaccessible for many old people and children. Little thought was given to surrounding areas and local infrastructure was poor and often crime-ridden.

A more sensitive problem was the loss of community, with traditional support networks from terraced housing difficult to maintain in these individually isolating high-rise tower blocks. There was no social cohesion or sense of belonging to the wider community. Most of these blocks have been demolished representing a great waste of time, resources and mismanagement of land use. It will be more difficult to prevent similar mistakes in the future, considering that high-density housing will be required in cites to cope with population increases without infringing on greenbelt and farmland.

However, the government’s commitment to Sustainable Communities seems a great foundation to avoid similar mistakes. It outlines the importance for ‘providing homes for our key workers, regenerating our towns and cities, providing parks for our families and children. ‘7 There needs to be a wider participation and consent with the local people that are being moved to new housing, so that building contractors and architects gain a more rounded and useful perspective thus more willing to respond to their needs and fears.

Greater attention must be given to surrounding areas and further investment in local enterprises will be necessary to ensure problems of inner-city decline and slums do not reoccur. It is complex but imperative to find a balance of affordable yet comfortable housing, and high-density yet vibrant communities. This requires time and co-operation with all interested parties and we must avoid the quick fix solutions of the past if we are to utilise urban land in Britain in the future. We must learn from these mistakes of the past if we wish to make the most of our land in a sustainable and efficient way.

Much of the mistakes in the past are to do with the economic incentives that land as a natural resource can supply. The task is to change these incentives, using the government, market, schools and communities to ensure a better understanding of the problems of the past and how we can avoid similar mistakes in the future. Changing circumstances will make learning from history harder, yet attitudes to land as a living entity rather than an economic resource must remain entrenched if we are to guarantee irreversible damage to our environment does not occur in the future.

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