Growing Into What?

Labour announced last month that it will return to its bad old ways with a vengeance. Towns and cities will be given ‘the right to grow’, that is, the right to build over adjoining land. Neighbouring areas that resist will simply be stamped upon.

It appears that Ed Miliband really is thick enough not to realise that the last time ‘the right to grow’ was out and about it was known as Lebensraum. There’s a lot more to that than Godwin’s Law: it’s an entirely serious point. Miliband, like all big nation-state politicians, cannot grasp the vital analogy between national sovereignty and local autonomy.

Invade a country uninvited, with tanks, etc. (because you have an expanding population and the power to dismiss as worthless what others treasure) and that’s a crime. Invade the countryside uninvited, with bulldozers, etc. (for exactly the same reason) and that’s trumpeted as a progressive social policy. In the world which WR strives to create, it’s still a crime. The policy is that of a bully, dressing up a love of force in pretend social conscience, and with an environmental conscience approaching zero.

Oh, but we have a housing crisis! We do not. We have a population crisis, thanks to Labour. And whom does Labour punish? The reckless masses of the burgeoning towns and cities? No. It punishes the innocent. The rural areas that just want to be left in peace. To grow food for THEM.

Labour really doesn’t do agriculture. Even more than the market fundamentalist wings of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, Labour is blind to the fact that ‘growth’ has to displace something that is already there and which has a value in its own right (even before Peak Oil bites). The ‘growth’ that all the London parties crave is not taking place into a vacuum. It isn’t just a load of worthless scenery disappearing beneath those bulldozers. Growth is taking place into a resource – our farmland – that represents our future.

That resource has a value, or at least a price, but how it is valued by policy-makers drastically under-estimates its worth.

Consider the ‘blue finger’. It’s a strip of high-grade farmland on the edge of Bristol, so called because, as Grade 1 land, it is coloured dark blue on Agricultural Land Classification maps. It has a long history of market gardening to meet Bristol’s food needs. There is a local group, the Blue Finger Alliance, devoted to its protection.

On its website is an article on the true value of land, which exposes the false accounting used when deciding to take land out of food production and use it for something else, like housing or road building.

The benefits of a development, say a road, are measured over its expected lifetime, say 60 years. But the value of the food production lost over that time is ignored. Only the immediate compensation value of the farmland is measured. The cost of a scheme is what it takes to build; the benefits are calculated on a far more generous basis, so the result can never be fair to objectors.

Over the course of the 20th century, politicians have had to make ever more complex decisions about the use of resources, and technicians have therefore come up with ever more complex systems for measuring costs and benefits. But do they – can they? – get it completely right? Accountancy and economic forecasting are hugely political areas, where a little fiddling with the figures can turn a dead duck into the panacea for all our problems. Think HS2. At times it really has been about dead ducks, or at least dead geese. In the 1960s the choice of where to put a third London airport involved trying to assign a price to the wildfowl of the Thames estuary.

So: we try to measure the unmeasurable and yet we ignore what can be measured. Advantages are exaggerated and monetised, while dis-benefits are minimised or ignored and not monetised. Tiny time savings by individual travellers – minutes or even seconds – are aggregated up to persuade us that the result will be an economic boom. The result of all this false accounting is massive spending on the wrong kind of infrastructure and other development. Not the kind that will be needed in a regionalised future but the kind that results from projecting unsustainable trends into infinity. It’s high time for a new politics that values other values than ‘value’.

When we point out the bare facts, they are routinely dismissed. Weren’t the existing cities green fields once? Yes, of course they were, but adding more damage won’t make a better world. We’ve long passed the point where we can go on accommodating urban growth and still have enough land to be self-sufficient in food. The right of the cities to grow equals the duty of the countryside to shrink and always, always, to retreat, and that cannot be in anyone’s long-term interest.

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