The Pressures on Rural Dorset
For many decades Sir David Attenborough has stated his concerns about the effects of population growth on our planet. In his view, there is no major problem facing our planet that would not be easier to solve if there were fewer people; and no problem that does not become harder with ever more people (1).
In the September issue of the Dorset Wildlife Trust's e-newsletter, its Chief Executive, Simon Cripps, repeats this concern: "Too many people on this planet as a whole, and in particular areas, massively increase the pressure on the natural environment… It is not just the physical impact of new housing potentially displacing wildlife that is a concern, but also the impact of many more people on sensitive habitats." He notes the preoccupation with economic growth and higher productivity that underpins this drive for more development and concludes: "I believe that Dorset, the UK and the world need to develop and implement ways to decrease our economic reliance on growth which in the long run must be unsustainable. The study of economics and population growth is huge and complex so I don't have the answers, but the evidence does point to growth as a major driver of biodiversity loss."
Some will see this as a brave raising of a head above the parapet. Equally the relationship between population growth and the pressures on the Dorset environment and biodiversity are complex. But most would agree that rural Dorset does face pressures and its environment is being affected - as reports for the Dorset Local Nature Partnership and Dorset County Council have shown (2). These pressures are for some most evident in the Local Plans that Districts develop and which reflect the results of Strategic Housing Market Assessments (SHMAs). While the additional housing numbers which these then propose should be ameliorated by assessments of the environment and infrastructure constraints, few local authorities across the country seem to have analysed these constraints and tempered their Local Plans accordingly.
The pressures for development in rural Dorset in part and perversely reflect the attractiveness of the area and the number of people who choose to retire here or buy second homes in the county - perhaps before making their retirement move. The county has ranked either first or second in the Prudential analysis of best retirement counties, and the quality of our environment is a major attraction. The county is now very dependent on the valuable and welcome spending power of these so-called "affluent greys". Some 40% of the population are retired (against a national average of 11%). The obverse of this is that only some 9% are under 25 (against 14% nationally) as they struggle to find affordable homes and sustainable local jobs. Many people would agree that rural Dorset needs more truly affordable homes for local people, not just more houses.
The Environment is our Greatest Asset
Our environment is not only vital for our wildlife and biodiversity, for our health and well-being and for our recreational enjoyment, it is also our greatest economic asset. Our 'environmental economy' has been estimated to be worth some £0.9 - £4.0 billion pa and involve 17,000 - 61,000 jobs. The value of the wider natural capital that includes such intangible benefits as an attractive working environment is greater still and underpins most of the businesses and jobs in Dorset. The Dorset tourism industry is our largest business sector and is reliant on our environment and heritage, our coast and countryside. Many other sectors are to a greater or lesser extent dependent on the natural environment. Skilled people are attracted not only by business opportunities but also by the lifestyle and environment which employers, employees and their families can enjoy.
If conserving and enhancing our environment is vital for the economic future of our county as well as the resilience and sustainability of our countryside, then Dorset needs an economic model backed by a proven business model that protects our environment, sustains the area's natural capital but still allows development that meets local needs (3) (4).
The Economic Model
While raising productivity is important for Dorset as well as the country at large and it is understandable that the Government and the LEP and others should focus on this, higher productivity may not be the only economic model for a rural economy. There are many sectors of the economy where the search for high productivity is not the sole aim. As Professor Tim Jackson has pointed out in an article in the RSA Journal (Growing Pains issue 3, 2016), certain kinds of tasks rely on the allocation of people's time and attention. Caring for others in the community, in care homes or in the NHS is not an activity that should be judged solely on the basis of productivity. "Its quality rests primarily on the attention paid by one person to another." The same is true with many creative activities. Creating a work of art, whether visual or performing, takes care, time and attention to detail. The same is true of developing a new software or digital product where high productivity might lead to inadequate testing, lower quality, a premature release and hence to poor customer satisfaction and limited repeat business.
In a service sector such as tourism, we value the informed person who adds value to our visit to a heritage site, to the attentive hotel staff or the guide who knows the history of the area. We are likely to return and recommend that place to others. Cutting staff to raise productivity and save costs can be a recipe for the long-term decline of a tourism business.
In farming, higher productivity through the better deployment of technology has an important role to play. But not all cows need to be in large high productivity factory complexes where there are few employees. There is also a role for the traditional farm where value is added through turning milk into cheese and ice-cream, where redundant buildings house new businesses and where farm shops sell the output from a range of local producers. This value-adding approach is also more likely to support a living landscape and thriving communities than one just based on high productivity and fewer people. Many landscapes rely on traditional grazing and many communities on local rural jobs.
The Business Model
If the economic model for a rural area such as Dorset might be based on adding value as well as on raising productivity, then we also need an appropriate and proven business model that can balance the needs of our landscape and heritage with that for a thriving, working rural economy and sustainable communities.
One such proven business model is a National Park. This has the statutory duty and responsibility to:
Conserve and enhance its environment and heritage
Promote enjoyment, understanding, recreation, health and wellbeing
Foster the economic and social wellbeing of its communities.
National Parks are not subject to central government housing targets and hence the development pressures that many see as threatening our environment and communities. Equally National Parks are not against developments which aim to meet local needs. Indeed they are under a specific remit to promote affordable homes for local people (5). This can mean working with housing associations that do not subscribe to the right to buy policy, that keep their properties in the rental sector and allocate them to local people.
On the basis of our close comparator, the South Downs National Park, a Dorset National Park would provide an internationally recognised brand to support our largest business sector, tourism. The evidence from other national parks suggests that this need not result in larger numbers of visitors but rather higher value tourism with people staying longer and spending more, with an extended season and with the benefits being spread to inland Dorset, complementing coastal attractions. A National Park brand would also promote rural products and services, attract inward investment and funds for such assets as sustainable transport, rural shops and bus services, start-up business units, food enterprise zones and farming. In an uncertain period for farmers and landowners, a Dorset National Park could help their various business interests to thrive. The South Downs attracted an additional £90 million in its first 5 years - all of this reinvested in the local economy and communities. The economic multiplier effects substantially increase this value added. Such additional income is unlikely to come from any other source. It would also release local funding for investment in what rural Dorset needs - be that truly affordable homes or rural transport or other investment priorities.
Some see a Dorset National Park as being at the centre of a "supercluster" of various designated areas, AONBs, nature conservation sites and even Marine Conservation Zones providing leadership, support and partnership working for landscape-scale conservation not only within the NP area but also beyond it. This would reflect the vision of Natural England set out in its Conservation21 strategy. The Dorset National Park could be a catalyst for appropriate and sustainable economic development benefitting the whole of Dorset including our environment and wildlife. Appropriate and sustainable economic development can thereby be balanced with respect for biodiversity and thriving local communities. A Dorset National Park would add value as well as help raise productivity. It would conserve and enhance Dorset's environment and cultural heritage while helping our economy and communities to thrive.
(1) See eg https://www.populationmatters.org/attenborough-talk/
(2) Dorset LNP, Natural Capital Investment Strategy 2016); Ash Futures Ltd, 2015. Dorset's environmental economy. Dorset County Council.
(3) Dorset's Natural Capital is our stock of natural assets, which provide a range of goods and services from food, water quality and pollination to recreation, culture and mental wellbeing. (Dorset LNP, Natural Capital Investment Strategy 2016)
(4) In response to the Government's August 2015 document Towards a one nation economy: A 10-point plan for boosting productivity in rural areas, the CPRE stated, "We are concerned, however, that the Rural Productivity Plan suggests that growth and development in the countryside will override the protections of our beautiful English countryside. The proportion of development on greenfield sites is currently at its highest since 1999 and the proposals for further planning deregulation risk putting villages and landscapes at additional risk of inappropriate developments."
(5) .English National Parks and the Broads: UK Government Vision and Circular 2010
*Para 78. The Authorities have an important role to play as planning authorities in the delivery of affordable housing. Through their Local Development Frameworks, they should include policies that pro-actively respond to local housing needs. The Government recognises that the Parks are not suitable locations for unrestricted housing and does not, therefore, provide general housing targets for them. The expectation is that new housing will be focused on meeting affordable housing requirements, supporting local employment opportunities and key services."