Wolves, Housing and Changing Identity

I have just returned from a public meeting during which the future of the local area appeared to be on trial. There seems to be a wave of development proposals on the cards in this part of Essex (I know that everyone in the UK is facing similar scenarios) at the moment and we are facing the difficult realisation that the identity of the area is going to change. The development could be seen as an opportunity to bring prosperity and increase the number of jobs in the area (there are pityingly few at present and poor prospects for young people) but unfortunately there appears to be very little (if any) commercial or industrial development planned within each application.  The issue as I see it is that each development is piecemeal, given the number of individual developers vying for their particular plots and there is little (if any) coherent plan for the area as a whole. We should be asking what local people want the area to look like – culturally, environmentally, aesthetically, socially, economically for our own generation and generations to come? The lack of such a vision leads to panic and depression. What is needed is positivity and inspiration such as that in St Werburghs, Bristol, where a self build housing community sprung up. I’m not disputing that St Werburghs and north east Essex are very different places, but it shows what can happen when a community is directly involved in their own built landscape. I should also say that I am writing this post (as with all my other posts) in a personal capacity and the views do not express those of any organisation I am directly or indirectly involved with!

The article below, titled ‘Wolves, Housing and Changing Identity’, engages with the subject introduced above but also looks for similarities in the world of ‘rewilding’, a concept that could have just as much opposition from communities as housing development. It was written for a local magazine and will be printed in that in the coming weeks. Now seems a suitable time however to publish it on the blog. I apologise for all of the local references. For those who do not know it, Great Holland is an Essex village with two Churches, on the urban fringes with the more developed areas of Frinton-on-Sea and Clacton-on-Sea. Tendring is the name of the area district. It remains largely agricultural in terms of the character of its landscape. The reference to ‘Carswellian’ refers to the UKIP MP Douglas Carswell who has held the constituency of Clacton since 2005 (although it was under the banner of Harwich in that year).

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‘Wolves, Housing and Changing Identity’

In July a new charity was launched in the UK. It’s called ‘Rewilding Britain’, and is the brainchild of columnist and campaigner George Monbiot. The charity’s ultimate aim is to work towards one million hectares of land in Britain (the total area of the UK is about 24 million hectares), and 30% of British territorial waters ‘supporting natural ecological processes and key species’. As well as reversing the loss of biodiversity in many areas, Rewilding Britain wants to reintroduce a number of species that have been long extinct in the UK, such as lynx and even wolves, and shift many local rural economies away from agriculture towards nature tourism and conservation. This does not mean that wolves will be roaming around Great Holland in the foreseeable future but it raises important questions about how the land around us is used and how this affects our community and others.

Part of me is excited about George Monbiot’s ideas, which he first outlined in his book Feral, published in 2013. I was lucky enough to see him speak in Bristol earlier this year. He is certainly a charismatic speaker but I think that, ultimately, his main weakness is that he causes division between interest groups. If his concept is to work he needs to have broad support which may or may not mean looking for consensus. He is not afraid of speaking (or writing) his mind and therefore manages to sideline many farmers and landowners who are partly responsible for creating and sustaining (as he would probably say) the ‘ecological desert’ we see today (along with policy makers, politicians and lobby groups).

The type of land use that currently seems most under threat in this country is therefore farmland, from the rewilders on the one part and developers on the other. Farmland however is vital both in terms of producing food (like it or not we are facing a population boom both domestically and internationally) but also its other social and cultural benefits, helping to define the character of a place. Locally we are seeing a wave of potential housing developments, mainly to the west of Clacton but also in Walton, Little Clacton and Kirby, almost exclusively planned for medium quality agricultural land. Is it inevitable that with a rising population and an increasingly urban identity in this part of Tendring, Great Holland will see similar changes to its landscape over the next few generations?

Over the next ten to fifteen years Tendring will go through significant change in terms of the nature of its landscape. This will be more significant in some areas and less in others but either way it will have an effect on the identity of the place and the quality (and quantity) of services available. Critically, schools, surgeries and job opportunities must keep in line with the amount of housing that is built, to make sure that such change does not have a negative effect on people and creates resentment (something that can already be sensed). Ideally, communities should be allowed to grow organically. Nonetheless, I see why our own area is being asked to bear such a large change and faces a significant number of large scale developments, given our proximity to the capital.

In Great Holland we are currently largely dominated by farmland landscapes, which is a defining feature of the village itself. If this was built upon, or indeed if large areas were rewilded, an impact would be had on the identity of the community itself. Before moving ahead with big landscape defining projects, whether these are built or ‘natural’, communities should be involved throughout the process so that everyone can understand the implications in terms of their everyday lives and how the identity of the area could change over the medium and longer term. The people who live in an area should be the focus and final decisions should not be imposed by ‘outsiders’ (by which I mean anyone who proposes significant landscape change who doesn’t have a social or cultural stake in the community itself) without the valid consent of the communities affected – a hint of ‘Carswellian’ localism here perhaps.

Human ecology, the interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary study of the interrelationship between humans and their natural, built and social environments, is a vital piece of the jigsaw in understanding development and is often overlooked outside academic circles. However, it is this academic disciplinary study that effectively does what I have been calling for above – understanding the social and cultural effects that changes in the landscape may have, before moving ahead with the changes themselves. Planning should account not just for housing stock but services, open green space, farmland, woodland etc. Without such ‘big scale social and landscape planning’ development will remain piecemeal and lack overall vision. Some may call this Orwellian, but ultimately if such a plan does not exist, in cases of both rewilding and housing development, then it is the people who live in the areas affected by such landscape change who will ultimately suffer.

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