Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Landscape management for our times?
The list of government bodies, NGO's and charities that have a remit to conserve and enhance our natural, historic and cultural landscape and environment is impressively long:
English Heritage, Natural England, the Environment Agency, Countryside Council for Wales, CADW, Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, the Forestry Commission, National Park Authorities, the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB...
This well-established infrastructure of landscape management is, in many ways, very reassuring; and, due to devolution and the inertness of the Coalition Government's risible 'quango-busting' exercise largely intact in these times of 'austerity', give or take the odd wobble over selling off forests.
There is also an enormous well-spring of expertise and experience wrapped up in these bureaucratic structures and a clear record of achievement and progressiveness over the last sixty years or so: our landscape is in a better place than it would be if this safety net had not been active during a period which will be remembered in history as one, founded on hope and idealism, but dominated by rapacious capitalism and consumerism.
Its hard not to feel that this familiar fabric, in its current guise, has run its course. However well the various organisations attempt to work co-operatively and in collaboration, the debilitating mind-set that our 'human' and 'natural' heritages are separate and not part of the same ecology is institutionally ingrained: Natural England look after the nature, English Heritage manage the historic and the Environment Agency take care of whats left.
But there are also other conundrums that I'm not clear we can tackle through current policy and thinking. The most obvious being that the majority of our landscape outside of urban areas is not managed as a heritage or conservation resource, and is largely not 'ours' at all. It is owned and worked (or not worked) by an unco-ordinated hotch-potch of land-owners, farmers, institutions, utility companies and others; some benign, some neglectful and damaging: many a mixture of the two.
Our traditional (or is that mythical) custodians of the landscape, the farmers, are still there, either squeezed into submission by the supermarket barons, trying to find enlightened ways to move forward or long ago surrendered to agri-business mass production. Yes, there are environmental stewardship schemes and National Trust farms based on sustainability and valued 'traditional' models, but are these doing any more than fiddling around the edges, giving us a feel good sheen that masks the larger area of rot underneath? Even if the answer were to massively ramp up the resources in these areas, how likely is that in the current political environment? That's a rhetorical question with an obvious answer. And the situation is not helped by the antipathy of many in the farming community towards any form of intervention by government (aka 'townies').
Where do the tenacious, committed and growing movement of small-holders, organic entrepreneurs and good-lifers fit into the picture? What real assistance does the current system give here? A creaking 'one-size fits all' planning process is one example of a structure that mitigates against such progressiveness.
And who is speaking up for the 'edgelands' of our urban areas as a landscape of value and potential, which could be put to purposeful use for food production and animal husbandry, managed by local communities? Well Richard Mabey and the psychogeographers are, but a fascination with these scruffy and neglected corners does not constitute a coherent policy for saving valuable and numerous spaces from obliteration by distribution centre, ring road, identikit housing development or retail park.
The Council of Europe's European Landscape Convention, with its highly inclusive definition of landscape, is at least on the right track of encouraging a holistic approach that crosses the institutional and conceptual divides; although a document derived by politicians, technocrats and lawyers is, in itself, not going to change anything.
Simon Jenkins is, as ever, thought-provoking on this subject in his article This cult of the ruin renders England's landscape soulless critiquing the enduring focus on preserving buildings and landscapes. This viewpoint only works, though, if there is an alternative based on sustainable stewardship by the many; a democratisation of the management of the land. Deregulating the countryside in the context of the socio-economic status quo would be disastrous; which is why one of the reliable constants in life is that you can never trust a Tory (or their storm-troopers in the shires, the Countryside Alliance) on 'the environment', a dismal track record of paternalistic mis-management, enclosure and gross exploitation is hard-wired into their psyche.
So, if the future management of the landscape is not to be safe but limited business as usual or surrender to the rigged agri-business market, what is a realistic alternative? Whether a 'super-agency' across all of the related areas of landscape management is part of the answer is debatable. Certainly a joined-up Landscape Strategy that emerges from the by-waters of local authority planning, and nature and heritage conservation and takes rightful centre stage alongside other policy priorities such as housing, transport, health and education is an aspiration that should be championed by all those with a passion and interest in landscape (which is, after all, fundamentally the spaces and places that we all inhabit).
But I think we also need to grasp the ownership issue and wrestle power away from the supermarket cartels. There needs to be a social compact with commercial agriculture - in return for long-term stability through better targeted financial support and advocacy as true stewards of the countryside, the industry must be based on sustainability and working with, not against, the environment. Alongside this, serious growth of the small-holding sector should be facilitated by tax breaks and incentives for co-operatives serving local markets, bringing productive land on the urban fringe back into agricultural and horticultural use, the resurrection of common land rights (and responsibilities), a statutory requirement for public bodies and large landowners to manage their land holdings in partnership with local communities and wider participation of the disenfranchised through well-managed community service and 'welfare to work' schemes.
If the 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' is to be more than just empty rhetoric then this is a future that we should lobby, shout and fight for.
I'd be interested to hear the views of others on this topic, particularly from those working inside landscape organisations; what developments are there in this direction?