Controlling the British Countryside

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By Matt Ridley

Britain's countryside is being gradually nationalized. The process is not, of course, called nationalization. It usually goes under the name of environmental policy. Yet the effect is to remove, one by one, the property rights of landowners large and small and to vest those rights in agencies of the state.

There is no dispute over whether this is happening. It has proceeded with virtually no interruption under Labor and Conservative governments alike. Only a few people, myself among them, think it is a bad thing.

It began, like other nationalizations, with direct acquisition of land. In 1919, in response to a shortage of timber during the First World War, the government set up the Forestry Commission to acquire land with government money, plant it with trees, and harvest the trees for the Treasury. This the Forestry Commission proceeded to do with gusto, gradually becoming one of the largest landowners in the country. It now owns more than 800,000 hectares (1,976,800 acres); in Scotland it owns more than 6% of the entire country. As befits a nationalized industry, the commission has lost money for 80 years-it typically loses about £50 million per year (about $75 million).

This state forestry has also been an environmental disaster, replacing native moorland with plantations of exotic Sitka spruce in even-age, densely-spaced forests. The forests not only mar landscapes and alter the ecology but offer little employment.

Not content with owning its estate, the Forestry Commission has also acquired the rights to regulate the trees on private land as well. It did this by subsidizing tree planting by private landowners, at first through the tax system. The Commission now has general power over all planting and felling in the countryside. No landowner may fell a wood or replant it without a license from part of the Commission, which must be sought in sextuplicate and takes a month or more to process. The bureaucracy reserves the right not just to refuse such applications but to micro-manage them- insisting on the planting of certain species of tree, for instance.

Some other arms of government followed the Forestry Commission's example of acquiring land for themselves. But bureaucrats soon realized that the direct acquisition of land by the state was unnecessarily expensive, and that the subsidize-and-regulate route offered more possibilities for empire-building.

Agricultural subsidies, too, are tightening government control. Sheep subsidies led to overgrazing. This was solved, once more, by regulation: sheep counting to catch cheaters is now a national duty as well as a way of falling asleep. In 1992, subsidies for agriculture expanded from products to land. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food (MAFF) asked farmers to file detailed maps of how every hectare of arable land had been planted every year. As expected, this system gradually became more officious. Any mistake in form filling by the farmer is punished with a heavy fine, while frequent mistakes by MAFF bureaucrats in processing the forms go unpunished.

Meanwhile, beginning with the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, the planning laws had begun their long, slow growth. Planning was at first a matter of designating where development could not occur: hence the green belts around cities and the first National Parks. But by the 1990s, planning had changed to specifying where development could occur. Structure Plans and Regional Planning Guidances became ever more prescriptive, designating some areas for industry, some for housing, and some for open space. The lobbying to influence these plans fertilized a whole new industry of planning consultants who were richly rewarded for reports that were weighed rather than read.

Development quickly became the preserve of big firms who were able to lobby local government and afford consultants. The individual lost leverage, and the system blighted the countryside with large, monotonous developments. The restrictions on development made the projects that did get through highly profitable, which perversely encouraged landowners and developers to pursue planning even more vigorously. With 40% of the price of a new house being the cost of the land it stood upon, the cost of restriction was borne by the house buyer and harvested by the landowner.

Moreover, special interests have gradually captured the "planning process" for themselves by supplying their expertise to planning authorities. All historic buildings (and an increasing number of ones of dubious value) are listed-which gives English Heritage, a semi-independent government agency (what we call a "quango") the power to decide exactly what may be done to them, indeed to order that things be done to them. Many of the listed buildings are effectively owned by nongovernmental organizations. For instance, English Heritage consults the Georgian Society before approving an alteration to a Georgian house. Nobody elected the Georgian Society to this position of power over the house owner.

An analogous process has occurred in the natural environment. National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty were invented in the 1940s. In the 1980s they were joined by Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). These were initially few and small but have recently grown to include vast areas, such as "the North Pennines." Nearly 10% of the entire country is now in an SSSI.

Then came AOHLVs (Areas of High Landscape Value), ESAs (Environmentally Sensitive Areas), and SCAs (Special Conservation Areas). The agencies that sponsor these various acronyms compete for land. Each acquisition feeds their ambitions to acquire larger and larger regulatory estates; for with size come budgets and power.

In a process familiar to those who know the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the battle for control of the natural environment has elevated certain wildlife species because they provide useful excuses for demanding more restrictions on private owners. Really

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Matt Ridley has been a scientist, journalist and businessman. With BA and DPhil degrees from Oxford University, he worked for the Economist for nine years as science editor, Washington correspondent and American editor, before becoming a self-employed writer and businessman. He was founding chairman of the International Centre for Life in...
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