This blog is continued from Thinking Systems #11.
I have just spent a month in UK and have had time to reflect on the changes I have observed there since I was a child in Devon. This time our stay in England corresponded with the summer holiday period and, while the weather was awful, the traffic was worse.
A number of things strike the visitor quite forcibly – and they are, in strange ways, related. The island is getting ever more crowded, road vehicles are getting bigger and traffic congestion is getting worse. Many new vehicles simply no longer fit on country roads that were designed for horses and carts centuries ago. New roads, built to relieve congestion, drive huge swathes of concrete and tarmac through rural landscapes, fragmenting habitats and creating visual eyesores in the process. (Think, for example, of the new Torquay Road bypass around the village of Kingskerswell in Devon).
Many once-thriving towns have been hollowed out by the development of superstore precincts – often built on green field sites in peri-urban areas – that have taken the retail heart out of the towns and dramatically changed traffic patterns in the process. The centres of too many smaller towns now have little but charity shops in their main streets; local banks and post offices, butchers and bakeries have closed. (For a highly coloured account of this and other social ills of the UK see Russell Brand (2014) “Revolution”)
These superstores cause major changes in traffic patterns. People can no longer walk to shops in town but now have to drive. Many roads servicing these stores cannot cope because the stores tend to cluster together in huge developments. Everyone runs on “just-in-time” logistics and large articulated lorries restock the superstores regularly. Traffic congestion is increased both on the main feeder roads and on local back roads as drivers try to find “rat runs” to avoid the jams – and this leads to further problems when local Councils install “traffic calming” devices in the “rat runs” (speed bumps, chicanes and diversions) to slow vehicles down.
English seaside resorts like Torquay are but a shadow of their former selves. The major retail chains have moved away to a regional superstore precinct – ironically called “The Willows” (don’t you just love the branding gurus?) – and, since the growth of cheap flights and package holidays to warmer climes, the hotels are reduced to hosting coach loads of old-time dancers and weekend trippers who have braved the horrendous traffic. Too often the entrepreneurs and planners seem to have ignored the externalities: the system level social and environmental costs.
As the years go by, cars and trucks get larger and larger. This is especially noticeable in models that have gone through a succession of design upgrades – think, for example, of the difference in size between the original Mini, VW Golf or Toyota Corolla and the latest models. Coaches, delivery vans and trucks have grown likewise. Many of these vehicles no longer fit into the narrow UK country roads and have difficulty passing each other. We are seeing evolutionary gigantism in vehicles. Is this necessary? What are the consequences?
The English landscape is changing as trees, especially in hedgerows, are getting more widespread and taller. There seem to be a couple of reasons for this. First, farming and rural land management practices have changed in the last 50 years so that the traditional and labour-intensive practice of cutting and laying hedges has been replaced with merely trimming hedges with a tractor-borne mechanical flail. The faces of the hedges are trimmed but trees are allowed to grow out of the hedge top and get taller. Similarly, originally coppiced woodland has been neglected. Second, there has been widespread planting of trees in the UK landscape. Woodland conservation management, reductions in grazing pressure and the replanting of brownfield sites has led to an increase in woodland area.
Agricultural policies and practices – intensification and extensification – have led to major changes in land use and biodiversity since I was a child. Biodiversity is in decline. Native birds that were once common are now rare while other introduced species have increased and spread. Nevertheless trees now are returning in numbers.
The traffic and the trees interact in curious ways. Once driving down “green tunnels” – where the trees meet over the road – was a joy restricted to quite small rural roads. Now the trees are bigger these tunnels can be found on major roads as well. But they have changed shape. Once the tunnels were naturally rounded but now they are, strangely, square. This seems to be because the hedges and trees at the sides of the roads are pruned not only by the Council worker’s flails but also by the traffic. The prevalence of huge coaches and articulated delivery trucks on rural roads ensures that the sides of the roads get regularly pruned – especially as they squeeze past each other on the narrow roads. The hedges become vertical until the trees jut out horizontally at the maximum height of the traffic to meet in the middle.
It is worth remembering that the UK landscape is entirely artificial. It is a product of centuries (even millennia) of tinkering: clearing, agriculture, grazing, mining and building. I can remember a sign on an old cart beside the M6 north of Lancaster that said “Beautiful Britain: brought to you by British agriculture”. How true but other, more subtle, forces are at work.
This “re-wilding” of the UK landscape is now much in vogue and large areas of the high fells and moors are being replanted with native trees. As grazing pressure has decreased (fewer animals are up on the fells and moors in summer) you can now see woodland and bracken spreading high up the valleys into areas once kept bare by grazing, although originally denuded of trees by the Romans through mining and smelting. “Re-wilding” threatens the viability of the hill farmers who must still run animals on the fells in the National Parks.
Once-magnificent vistas have disappeared from view as the trees have grown. For example, at Ashness Bridge on the road to Watendlath in the English Lakes there once was a superb view over the medieval packhorse bridge, down the valley to Derwentwater and away to the distant fells. Now, standing in open woodland, all you can see are the trees. The few old high relic oak woods of Dartmoor are expanding and the trees are also getting taller. Wistmans Wood above Two Bridges on Dartmoor has changed significantly since I was last there. Perhaps, as well as less grazing, the climate is warming.
I revisited my old PhD field site in Devon for the first time in 50 years and was amazed. The trees are now twice the height, and access is now all but impossible because of a much thicker understory. Stock numbers are down, grazing pressure is much reduced and tourist traffic has been diverted by new car parks. Wide paths and a new bridge have been built to guide walkers into other areas. Nobody goes to my old site anymore.
Despite the changed vistas, the roads of the National Parks are thronged with ever-larger family cars and even bigger caravans and camper vans in summer. Traffic congestions is rife and I was moved to wonder just how much it cost the UK economy to have so many people sitting stationary in their cars for hours at a time on motorways and on regional access roads to shopping centres and the coast. Once in the National Parks, or at the coast, walking in the narrow lanes has become downright hazardous because of the traffic. What was a delight is no longer so. Few seem to complain, but regard all this as normal.
If there is a message from all this it is that a long-term systems view is necessary. Changes are happening over many decades and people seem to accept a slowly changing baseline without question. Simon Schama made a similar point in his “Landscape and memory” (1995). Urban Green campaigners for more “re-wilding” need to think carefully about the long-term impact on the farmers – especially the hill farmers – who are actually the land managers and conservators of the biodiversity.
The ever more popular habit of urban dwellers to “have a place in the country” also has system level implications. Traffic flows to and from the cities – aided by motorway building – have increased dramatically. UK residents commute huge distances. Country real estate prices have been driven up to the point where young rural families can no longer afford to live in the communities they grew up in. Once thriving rural communities have been lost to the influx of richer “off comers” with different values. (There are cases of protests over the “noise” of the bell ringers practicing in the local church!)
Some bird species (barn owls and swifts) are in steep decline because the “improvement” of old farm buildings and barns for residential use denies these species roosts and nesting sites under eaves and in ruins. We need long-term residents – both natural and human – and viable communities in the landscape. Having quite a high density of rural residents in converted barns and the like is also thwarting attempts at river restoration because of the high density of septic tanks scattered throughout the landscape. Over time these tanks develop preferential pathways of underground nutrient flows direct to the streams; effectively a series of hidden point sources that are difficult to find and manage.
The great UK foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001 showed that by far the largest source of revenue in rural areas was tourism. People come from all over the world to see “Beautiful Britain” so we need to be careful how it is managed, how it is changing and what the long-term implications of profit-driven commercial developments and planning decisions might be. Indeed, how do we reconcile landscape values and infrastructure that have their roots in millennia of land management practices with a 21st century neo-liberal economic focus? What have we done in the name of efficiency and reform?
The domination of the motor vehicle and the reliance on it for transport seems to have resulted in an alienation of UK residents from their landscape. As they whizz to and fro on the motorways (or sit in traffic jams) the prevalent attitude seems to be “well, when the sun shines, it still looks like the Beautiful Britain we have always known, so everything must be OK”; but subtle and powerful forces are at work. Tourism, traffic and trees, like all hard and soft systems, interact in recursive and complex ways over long periods of time. Short-term narrowly based decision making often backfires at the system level.
A hidden issue is the further alienation of land through private ownership and its use as an investment and tax haven. A free market can distort social and other values. A recent book by Peter Hetherington (2015) “Whose land is our land: the use and abuse of Britain’s forgotten acres” addresses these issues. I have just been alerted to these issues in England – and to the quite different view being taken by the Land Reform Review Group in Scotland. Land ownership reform is becoming quite an issue – and rightly so.
It is also clear that, as a result of these economic approaches, compensation is not being paid. Commercial enterprises, working solely on the basis of efficiency, productivity and shareholder value, are creating widespread social and environmental externalities that are not being compensated for. Land is being bought up as an investment and to avoid taxes; developers can make huge profits. Superstores are highly profitable and efficient, but what of the associated social and environmental externalities? Profits are being privatised whilst the costs are being spread to society and the environment with long-term consequences.
In UK, as in other countries, fair prices are not being paid for food, especially commodities like milk and other farm produce. Supermarkets can use these products as “loss leaders” to draw in customers whilst having severe consequences for dairy farmers and their ability to run viable enterprises. Driving more “efficiency” into agriculture – yet more intensification and extensification – has social and environmental costs.
Supermarkets sell “fair trade” products from third world countries: perhaps it is time to institute a similar policy closer to home? Perhaps we need to envisage a much wider definition of “fair trade” and apply it to other services and commodities? The continued existence of Beautiful Britain might depend on it.