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Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Hey, Colchester! It’s supposed to be a ‘green and pleasant land’ out there

19 November, 2017 - 17:00
Colchester: The urban sprawl goes on and on and on... Picture: ARCHANT

Colchester: The urban sprawl goes on and on and on... Picture: ARCHANT


Having returned from Diss, a charming place which I never mind visiting, I came home with much to think about, writes Martin Newell.

Diss is a small market town with a medieval core and a patina of Georgian grandeur. The town has good restaurants and its streets are clean.

On the evening I arrived, young men weren’t fighting with each other, nor were young women strutting around like velociraptors in heels.

This increasingly common feature of the night economy in many towns nowadays appeared to be absent in Diss.

My trip to Diss happened in a week when I discovered some interesting facts about land usage in the UK. For several decades now, satellites have been taking high-definition pictures of the UK from space. This has been in order to document the changing uses of land as part of an EU survey.

Without boring readers with too many details, some startling facts emerge. The most salient of these is that despite what many of us might believe, Britain is not being covered in concrete. Less than 2% of our land is categorised as ‘continuous urban fabric’. Even ‘discontinuous urban fabric’ - land which has between 50% and 80% of its surface built-upon - still only accounts for 5.3% of the total land space.

This means that we are living in a far greener land than many of us might previously have thought.

In England they calculate, an average 72% of our land is farmland, 14.9% is ‘natural’, 3.8% is ‘green urban’ and only 8.8% is urban sprawl.

Being chiefly an optimist, this supports my own quiet suspicions. I have based my fluffy theory simply upon what I can see from the window on a train journey between London and Norwich. It strikes me that there’s still loads of land out there, not yet developed.

In the face of much anger felt by those who believe that developers always get their way, I decided to test my tenuous theory by comparing the satellite survey’s national land-use statistics to those for my own area: Colchester and surrounding district.

Superficially, Colchester and its environs (at least according to the statistics) do scrub up pretty well in terms of countryside still undeveloped. We have an enviable 77% farmland here. That’s somewhat higher than the national average. However, the land which is classified as ‘built upon’ stands at a buxom 11%. This is almost twice the development rate of the national average. Our ‘natural’ land percentage - moors, forests, lakes etc - is a mere 8%. This compares to a UK average of 35%. Green urban land: parks, sports grounds and other green spaces, at 4% is slightly higher than the national 3%. This last factor does make sense, because the more you build, the more parks and green breaks a developer might be forced to provide. Still with me? Good.

So how does it all pan out? Well, on the surface, it means that the UK as a whole may be doing rather better than we’d previously surmised on the Green’n’Pleasant-Land-o-Meter.

Colchester and its environs, however, are definitely being over-developed and at a huge rate of knots. This development has seemingly gone unchecked and up until now, only faintly opposed. Even casual observers must have noticed over recent years, the springing up of vast tracts of housing, nearly none of it affordable or ‘social’.

In addition, instances of in-filling along with a wizard wheeze of plonking houses on hurriedly-grabbed garden plots and other green spaces has become endemic. The greed which fuels such activity currently borders upon the maniacal. If planning permission is denied once, developers will return a second, or even a third time until they win. Because they know they will win.

My own region’s rapid urban sprawl can also be observed in the survey’s findings. While it is all fine and dandy norminally having 77% farmland, we can’t actually go and walk on most of it, can we? This leaves locals, if we are to believe the statistics, a tiny 12% of land: ‘natural’ or ‘green urban’ upon which to disport ourselves during our leisure time.

People who raise objections to over-development are called ‘Nimbys’. This is a thing which most protestors deny, since it implies a small-minded selfishness.

Well, I don’t see much enlightenment or altruism coming from the developers’ camp, nor from those councillors whom they seek to woo. I think it’s time that the word ‘nimby’ was reclaimed. What’s wrong with objecting to some rapacious scoundrel placing a monstrosity, sometimes literally in your backyard? There are now signs of more widespread dissent about the development-without-apparent-infrastructure threatening Colchester, east and west. Rightly so. It is a disgrace.

As for the so-called Local Plan: ostensibly a toolkit to limit development but actually a type of bureaucratic stinger thrown at objectors to slow them down, they are, as my late mum might have said, “...about as much use as a sick headache.” Some days I wake and I think, “Maybe I’ll just move.” Might Diss be far enough?

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