The Lesson of Swaffham Down

W.R. Mead

  • The Theft of the Countryside by Marion Shoard
    Temple Smith, 269 pp, £9.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 85117 200 8
  • Britain’s Wasting Acres by Graham Moss
    Architectural Press, 230 pp, £13.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 85139 078 1

These two books could not have been written about any other country. They are distinctively – indeed instinctively – British. Both are concerned with Britain’s most precious and irreplaceable natural resource – the land – and with the problems of its employment. With one acre of land per capita, it behoves us to keep an eye on how this scarce resource is used or misused. The emphasis in Marion Shoard’s book is on the increasing divergence between farming practice and conservation – conservation of the landscape itself as well as of its natural constituents. She prosecutes with vigour the thesis that the farmer has become increasingly the destroyer rather than the guardian of the landscape. Graham Moss takes a broader look at the way in which so many of the finite acres are being wasted. He contrasts the neglect of the inner city with the continuing expansion of the urban area over so much of the country’s highest-quality farmland. He estimates that between 3 and 4 per cent of the country’s surface area is wasted, that wasted land in urban areas alone is as extensive as the area occupied by all of Britain’s 34 New Towns, and that every five years an area of farmed land equal in size to the county of Gloucester is lost to urban and other developments. He laments that he is only able to deal in estimates, because facts and figures relevant to his theme cannot be consulted except from a host of organisations using different criteria and employing different definitions. Indeed, there appears to have been relatively little progress in the collection of the kind of statistics that he needs since L. Dudley Stamp prepared his pioneering land utilisation survey in the 1930s. Marion Shoard is no less sensitive to what Alice Coleman (director of the second land use survey) has called ‘the galloping consumption’ of agricultural land for other purposes, but her banner is unfurled for a different reason. So, following in the wake of a stream of hardbacks and paperbacks, official reports and semi-official documents (all listed in Graham Moss’s helpfully annotated bibliography), come two more polemical statements about the landscape of Britain. The one aims ultimately at a plan of campaign to control developments that impair the unique heritage of the rural landscape. The other challenges the profligacy with which farmland is being squandered and the complacency with which (in the words of George Orwell) its ‘defilement is taken for granted’.

Marion Shoard argues that the traditional English landscape is an inconvenient obstacle to the activities of the agricultural businessman (agri-businessman, her unlovely epithet, is intended to conjure up the vision of a latter-day robber baron). She sees farmers at large as agents of destruction who, ‘mesmerised by the combination of technical change and excessive subsidies’, are dismantling the landscape that they have inherited rather than adapting to it. At the same time, the owner-operators of farmland, who are more numerous today than ever before, enjoy freedom to shape, use and change the 70 per cent of Britain’s land surface that they control, with very little let or hindrance. Marion Shoard reviews the character of the new agricultural revolution that has precipitated the situation, considers the economics of present-day British farming, stresses the inadequacy of existing legislation for safeguarding the rural heritage and puts forward a programme of action.

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