As the populations of major UK urban cities continue to sprawl out, issues affecting the rural areas have increased in number making proper land use planning crucial to maintaining the integrity of the countryside. Rural areas are wards, districts, or counties that have low population densities, scattered settlements, large tracts of open space, and do not have services that are commonly available in more urbanized areas (e.g., well developed transport infrastructure) (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), 2001; Park et al., 2004). They may range in type, size, and liveliness from remote villages and hamlets to settlements on the outside of large towns or areas with extensive agriculture and farming (Office of Deputy Prime Minister, 2001). In 2004, the Government issued four planning objectives for rural areas:
- ‘To raise the quality of life and the environment in rural areas.
- To promote more sustainable patterns of development.
- Promoting the development of the English regions by improving their economic performance so that all are able to reach their full potential.
- To promote sustainable, diverse, and adaptable agriculture sectors.’
(Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2004, p. 6)
This essay provides a general review of rural land use issues and the Government’s strategies to address them. Definitions for the four planning objectives from conventional vantages and policy guidance are interwoven with descriptions of the problems associated with rural areas. The long term land use implications of rural issues are briefly considered. Lastly, commentary is given regarding the likelihood that meeting the objectives will begin to address rural issues.
The Government’s first objective involves the improving the quality of life and environment in rural areas. Quality of life may be defined as ‘contentment with everyday life’ or ‘the degree of enjoyment and satisfaction in everyday life as opposed to financial or material well-being’ (MSN Encarta, 2007). It is how a person feels about his life as a whole, not just in relation to one aspect of it. Although it may also be individually defined and considered, quality of life has been measured and tracked by the UK Government using more than 45 indicators. Broadly, these indicators gauge quality of life with statistics about people and place, community cohesion and involvement, community safety, culture and leisure, economic well-being, education and life-long learning, environment, health and social well-being, housing, and transport and access (Whittlesea & Jones, 2005). For example, community cohesion and involvement can be represented by:
- ‘The percentage of residents who think that people being attacked because of their skin color, ethnic origin, or religion is a very big or fairly big problem in their local area.
- The percentage of residents who think that for their local area, over the past three years, community activities have gotten better or stayed the same.
- Election turnout.’ (Whittlesea & Jones, 2005, p. 24)
With regards to rural areas, a high quality of life is suggested by thriving communities with robust economies, quality housing, and a sense of well-being (ODPM, 2004). For rural areas in particular, social, economic, and other conditions unique to rural life are more important for quality of life than physical settlements (ODPM, 2001). Some indicators, such as community safety, culture, and transport and access, may not be obvious determinants of quality of life for residents depending on the nature of the particular community. For example, residents of small villages where crime and transport and access are virtually nonexistent or unnecessary may feel that these indicators do not affect their quality of life because they already have safe and easily accessible communities. In fact, the village residents unknowingly have a high quality of life in these areas.
The Government is also seeking to raise the quality of the environment in rural areas. Park et al. (2004) identifies four categories of the environment. Natural resources and ecosystems include traditional conceptions of ‘the environment’ such as air, soil, water quality and supply, diversity of flora and fauna, and landscape. The built environment includes communities, historic buildings, and heritage artifacts. The much more difficult to perceive, socio-cultural environment (structure), refers to the values, morals, attitudes, and lifestyle of people. The economic environment involves the industrial, infrastructure, and employment structure (plus, depending on the community, reliance on tourism). According to Park et al. (2004), communities with these any of these features in quality and abundance should be considered to have an excellent environment.
The Government’s perception of the environment seems to refer primarily to the natural environment. Priority is given to protect the ‘most valued’ landscapes and environmental resources of the open countryside (ODPM, 2004). The built and socio-cultural aspects of the environment are more lumped together and intertwined as local distinctiveness and intrinsic qualities. Level of quality and progress could be measured by compiling an inventory of the environmental features in a specific area and using this as a baseline for comparison to other areas or of future quality. For example, a landscape may have topography, hedges, river, lakes, land use, etc. A more ‘valued’ or high quality landscape may have more unique features, more abundant features, or more interesting features than a less ‘valued’ landscape. The landscape of Kettlewell in Upper Wharfedale, Yorkshire Dales may be more ‘valued’, and therefore important to protect, because of its rolling green hills, sleepy villages, and diverse foliage than a landscape just outside the edges of London.
The Government’s second objective entails the promotion of sustainable development. The most accepted definition of sustainable development is: ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (UK Government Sustainable Development, 2006). Sustainable development balances the social, economic, and environmental components of a society (ODPM, 2005). It also provides an environmental ethical framework that gives consideration and importance to both the present and the future. Essentially, it says that we will use only enough now to meet our needs so that future generations will have resources from which to draw. Similarly, the resources of other communities, populations, and ethnic groups are respected so they can also meet their own needs. This notion has made the idea of sustainable development popular, but difficult to interpret, measure, or assess.
The UK Government has attempted to provide more insight into how sustainable development is achievable from a policy perspective. Broadening the accepted definition, the UK’s stated goal for sustainable development is ‘to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, without compromising the quality of life of future generations’ (ODPM, 2005). According to the Governments five principles, sustainable development means:
- ‘Living within environmental means;
- Ensuring a strong, health, and just society;
- Achieving a sustainable economy;
- Using sound responsibility; and
- Promoting good governance.’ (UK Government Sustainable Development, 2006)
These principles work in conjunction with one another and are mutually reinforcing. If a community doesn’t embody each of these principles, it is unlikely that it is sustainable (UK Government Sustainable Development, 2006).
These goals have been articulated into practical terms to promote sustainable patterns of development for rural areas. More development should be focused towards existing settlements, including the countryside fringing urban areas. This practice yields at least three benefits: less open space will be disturbed or lost to development, less environmental damage, and populations can utilize existing infrastructure instead of spending public funds to provide new services. Urban sprawl (the outward spread of built-up areas caused by their expansion) should be prevented or at least contained for the same reasons (MSN Encarta, 2007). Similarly, the Government advocates that open space should be used conservatively and wisely in ways that do not augment urban sprawl or environmental problems. The term ‘conservative’ implies higher densities with a range of land uses. The ‘right’ kind of development should be matched to communities so that the integrity of the countryside is preserved and local people are given opportunities (Campaign to Protect Rural England, 2002). For example, creating a wildlife refuge park or improving a community’s small downtown is a sustainable development because it can improve the local economy through jobs and tourism while protecting the existing natural and built environment. Conversely, building a small commercial development far from existing settlements would not be a sustainable development because, although it would create jobs and encourage commerce, the development would destroy open space, encourage sprawl, and possible degrade the local environment.
The Government’s third objective is to boost the economic performance of regional areas. More specifically, rural economies should be competitive, diverse, and thriving (ODPM, 2004). A competitive economy is driven primarily by market forces and not government intervention. The prices of goods and services is kept low because there are a sufficient number of business or firms supplying them and the customer base is there to demand them. For example, if there is only one farmer with cows supplying milk in the village, he can charge any price that will maximize his profits as long as there is sufficient demand for the milk. The dairy sector of this economy is not competitive because the farmer has a monopoly and controls the industry.
An economy can be diverse in a couple of ways. On one hand, it can consist of a number of different (and often unrelated) industries. A diverse economy, for instance, may have people employed in agriculture, manufacturing, trade, education, and healthcare. An economy that is not diverse would have many people employed in one industry, like manufacturing, or with one employer, like a steel mill. Diverse economies are preferred to and more resilient than non-diverse economies because they are more stable. If a business leaves a diverse economy (closes down or moves to a new town), people can find employment elsewhere in their proximity and the economy is able to survive and rebound from the loss of an employer or industry. The importance of a diverse economy has been realized all over the UK as towns that sprung up after the Industrial Revolution to support steel mill workers quickly decayed once the mill closed. On the other hand, a diverse economy provides a number of different jobs and jobs from different education levels. There are jobs for laborers as well as office workers.
A thriving economy is alive with economic activity and interaction. Workers may receive regular pay increases as the profitable of a business increases. Trade occurs between firms within and outside the economy. The economy offers opportunity for businesses to expand. New businesses are starting or attracted to the local area. A thriving economy demonstrates these types of qualities.
Improving the economic performance of a region requires stimulating economic development, as evidenced by economic growth (Park et al., 2004). Economic development consists of social, economic, and cultural changes made to stimulate economic growth. For example, a new road may be built that provides new access to other towns or connection to a major city. The new access and improved connectivity can attract businesses that need to move goods and products faster or are looking for additional markets in which to sell products. Industrial innovation, new products, or creating campaigns to attract businesses that hire a lot of employees (e.g., manufacturing) also are economic development initiatives. Economic development causes economic growth. Economic growth can be quantified as an increase in employment, volume of trade, revenues, household income, etc. These measures may be used to indicate economic performance and status or compare the economies of two different regions. From a sustainability perspective, economic development should provide for long-term economic growth without exhausting all of the resources necessary to grow (Park et al., 2004).
The Government’s fourth objective is to encourage sustainable, diverse, and adaptable agriculture sectors. Agricultural uses are the dominant land use in rural areas and therefore are tied to the environment, economy, and quality of life (Swales et al., 2005). Sustainable agriculture speaks to the primary purpose of sustainable development in that it does not destroy the ecosystem on which it relies. Examples of sustainable agricultural practices include using natural fertilizers and pesticides to minimize water quality and biodiversity degradation, allowing land to be unseeded for a period of time after plowing so it can recover its natural fertility, and reducing livestock numbers to reduce the grazing pressure on land and help reduce greenhouse gases (Swales et al., 2005). Often, sustainable agriculture sectors rely less on direct subsidies provided by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to be profitable and successful (Swales et al., 2005). In a diverse and adaptable agriculture sector, different types of agricultural goods are produced from the same economy. The agricultural sector does not rely solely on one product or producer and is therefore able to change when new processes become available, agricultural trends change, or there is an unproductive growing system. The loss of one producer has less of an effect on the agricultural supply chain and other businesses (Swales et al., 2005).
Throughout the explanations of these objectives, the problems associated with rural areas have been discussed but not stated explicitly. Some of the concerns for rural areas include:
- The sprawl created by urban areas that is ‘eating into the countryside, overwhelming transport systems, and destroying the character of rural communities’ (Campaign to Protect Rural England, 2002; Campaign to Protect Rural England, 2006, p. 2).
- A multitude of environmental issues such as loss of natural habitats, decline in biodiversity, change in landscapes, and contamination of air, soil, and water (Swales et al., 2005).
- A lack of community resources and facilities, such as hospitals, bank branches, post offices, and schools (Department of the Environment, Transport, and the Regions (DETR), 2000).
- A need for more and more high quality jobs and a strong economic base (DETR, 2000).
- Socioeconomic issues such as lack of affordable housing need for more quality educational opportunities, and poverty (Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, 2004).
Meeting the four planning objectives for rural areas would only somewhat begin to address the problems associated with rural areas. Sustainable development is a wonderfully idealistic concept, but the complex interplay between social, economic, and environmental issues cannot readily be identified or quantified. According to Swales et al. (2005, p. 57), integration between these three aspects must occur ‘to achieve truly integrated and sustainable rural development.’ How can a sustainable economy be built while protecting the environmental resources on which building the economy relies (Park et al., 2005)? How can social and cultural resources be safeguarded in a booming economy or in the midst of environmental conservation (Campaign to Protect Rural England, 1998)? Quality of life is mentioned in the objectives, but the objectives do not directly undertake rural housing, education, and social issues. These issues cannot be resolved simply through economic growth or environmental protection; confronting social issues requires government intervention, public expenditure, and specific initiatives.
In addition, the strategies seem to be coming from the ‘top down’ instead of the ‘bottom up.’ Many rural planning agencies and residents understand the rural issues but Government policies offer very little description of the coordination that has occurred with rural planning agencies and residents to identify these issues and appropriate strategies. For example, a recent survey of farmers found that farmers with less than 200 hectares were less likely to implement environmentally beneficial land management changes than those with larger farmers (FPDSavills Research, 2001). Moreover, these policies do not address the changes in lifestyle that will be necessary among the general population to achieve sustainability objective. These changes may actually require a perceived lowering of quality of life. Ultimately, the present generation will have to learn to conserve energy, water, and resources while minimize waste and doing more with less (Campaign to Protect Rural England, 2004). Aggressive government policies and funding will not be enough to bring about these changes, especially if rural residents were not initially consulted when developing these strategies.
It is national planning policy to distinguish between town (urban areas) and country (rural areas) (Campaign to Protect Rural England, 2004). However, some of the issues associated with rural areas are the results of unsolved urban problems. For example, sprawl is the overflow or continuous outstretch of urban areas in rural areas. Increased population and demand stresses infrastructure and community services. Sprawl creates problems in rural areas (e.g., traffic) that they are not equipped to solve. Unless the Government encourages some type of ‘unified’ planning initiatives, it is unlikely that some of the issues in rural areas can be solved separately from those of urban areas.