Save Our Woods website.
My rationale for starting up this blog was straightforward: as someone who is constantly immersed in the landscape, both physically (as we all in fact are) and conceptually (a more specialised pursuit) I am just as fascinated by theoretical concepts of cultural and physical landscapes as spending a day walking in a National Park or observing the natural history of an ancient woodland; or indeed looking at a collection of landscape paintings or photographs, experiencing an urban adventure in a new city or working to landscape my own modest garden. I could go on with further diverse examples of landscapism. To my mind these are all naturally linked activities and areas of interest, and I do not consider myself unusual in this regard.
The frustration that I, and many other like-minded souls, have felt is observing these landscape themes, which should be organically but messily inter-twined, grow further and further apart from each other as the individual professional, academic and organisational structures develop into their 21st century maturity; this is the curse of specialisation, an evolving feature of Western society since the heyday of the Enlightenment and Victorian polymaths.
Yes, there are many examples of relatively modest inter-disciplinary exchange and collaboration in academic research or conservation projects, and some more enlightened local authorities have taken steps towards a more holistic approach to landscape planning. Maybe if a cultural geographer, a landscape art historian, a farmer, a landscape architect, a mountain-biker, an ecologist and a landscape archaeologist were put together in a room you would hope for a degree of common ground and certainly some lively discussion; but each would soon return to the familiarity of their divergent agendas and objectives back in the workplace. Moreover, in responding professionally to a government policy proposal, a threat to a particular landscape or some other specific challenge (a hose-pipe ban for instance) they would narrow their focus to one of self-interest, because this is the received wisdom of how a pluralistic society operates.
Why does this matter? Well, I would argue that this segregation has contributed to the marginalisation of landscape in terms of both government policy and public opinion. Given the importance that many people attach to their local, regional and national environments and landscapes as an essential part of the bedrock of who they are and where they come from, should this not be a central motif of public policy, given the same weight as key elements of education, health and economic development? Instead landscape has been channeled into the comparative back-waters of the environment, planning, heritage and tourism, from where it modestly shouts to be heard but is often pushed back by more assertive beasts: ‘global warming!’, ‘jobs and growth!’, ‘housing targets!’.
So, building on the foundations of the European Landscape Convention and taking at face-value the Coalition Government’s commitments to be the ‘greenest ever’ and promote ‘localism’, here is my personal Manifesto for a working landscape for England (based on an aspirational ‘Devo-max’ model of a UK federal state with devolved governments in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and possibly further regional devolution in England; well, you can but hope):
1. A unified Working Landscapes Service, organised regionally and locally and composed of both professional and community volunteer expertise, to replace the current disjointed and complex governmental infrastructure of DEFRA, Natural England, English Heritage, Environment Agency, local authority departments etc.
2. The Service would be responsible for managing a working landscape in the interests of the local community, with equal weight given to the following in its remit:
- sustainable farming and land-based employment;
- spatial planning and land-use;
- local affordable housing and workspace;
- flora and fauna, natural and semi-natural habitats;
- the built environment, including historic (and prehistoric) landscape features;
- sustainable energy, water, forestry and raw material supply;
- recreation and amenity in the landscape;
- designated and undesignated landscapes.
3. The Service would be transparently funded from local taxation and a new carbon and corporation tax on companies based on a size-profit-environmental impact formula; local leadership would report directly to their regional parliamentary representatives and community councils. Best practice sharing would be encouraged but there would be no national standards, indicators or league tables.
4. Charities and professional trade organisations with a remit of conserving, managing and working the landscape and its flora and forna would remain independent but work in a legally-binding partnership with the Service.
5. Local and regional planning decisions would be made at the lowest possible level with a presumption in favour of a legally defined concept of ‘sustainable development in the interests of the local community and in harmony with high-quality design standards, vernacular style and the landscape or townscape setting’, particularly for community self-build and renovation schemes; national infrastructure projects would be subject to a similar legal test at the national level, with the possibility of referenda on projects of substantial long-term significance.
6. Whilst remaining independent entities, farms, small-holdings and allotment groups would be encouraged to work with local, regional or national co-operatives that would be set-up to distribute produce on their behalf and ensure a living income, through a policy of ‘enlightened self-interest’ (eg see points 7, 8 and 9 below).
7. Supermarkets and other food retailers would be both encouraged and compelled to purchase the majority of British produced stock from the co-operatives; facilitated through a mixture of tax breaks and quotas for local and national produce.
8. The current EU and environmental subsidy system would be channeled through the co-operatives, with payments tied to sustainable production based on a simple and transparent set of environmental, animal welfare and food quality standards.
9. Disused and under-utilised green space and woodland in towns, cities and the urban fringe would be prioritised for community allotments and small-holdings with a supporting infrastructure of outlets for their produce.
10. An environmental and agricultural taskforce would be developed, made up of local volunteers, people on community service and the long-term unemployed, organised by local farmers, ecologists and landscape companies.
11. Landscape would be a central part of a Sustainable Environment module in the teaching of Citizenship to children at primary and secondary education level.
12. Multi-disciplinary landscape management programmes would be developed for the further and higher education sectors to replace the current narrowly focused professional and discipline-specific offerings.
13. A review would be set up of the current systems for designating and legally protecting landscapes and landscape features such as National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Listed Buildings and World Heritage Sites, with the objective to develop a less complex and more joined-up process with greater community participation.
So, there you have it, a viewpoint on a more rational, joined-up and centre-stage approach to landscape and all its many components. No doubt there are omissions (probably should be something in there about renewable energy sources, but I’ll leave the wind farm can of worms to someone else) and to many this may appear naïve, utopian, a lawyers charter or too directive, but its just put out there to encourage more thought and debate.
Landscapists of the world, unite and take over!
 Partly for reasons of objectivity and partly out of laziness, I have not trawled the manifestos of any political parties or vision statements and strategic plans of Government agencies, charities or professional bodies; these are simply my own views, which may, or may not, coalesce with those of others.