This series of articles looks at Environmental Decline and Fall in the UK, focusing on the Borough of Basingstoke. Why single out Basingstoke you might ask? Well, it’s the place I know best and I have a feeling it is fairly representative of southern England in terms of the impact that urbanisation and modern farming have had on the natural environment.
This first article takes an overview look at the Borough over the last 70 years; future articles will examine in more detail the impact that modernised farming methods have had on the local environment; and how planning decisions continue to impact wildlife, a case in point being developments alongside Cufaude Lane, discussed in previous Toad Rage articles (blogs passim). What is revealed is a saga of environmental disappointment and there’s no happy ending. The sceptic in me sees the drive for economic growth and wilful indifference to biodiversity working hand in hand amongst those in power, both elected and employed, fuelled by compliant indifference among most of those they represent or serve. I have a horrible feeling that what’s true at the local level may well be true nationally and globally.
Above: Basingstoke before and after. Left – relatively unspoilt meadow, ripe for development; and right – the Brave New World of modern Basingstoke.
No self-respecting naturalist would contest that in the space of a generation the UK has seen a catastrophic decline in biodiversity and wholesale destruction of wildlife-rich and wildlife-friendly habitats. Thanks to modernised agriculture and urbanisation (housing and industrialisation) we now live in a land where self-inflicted biodiversity impoverishment is the new normal. No wonder Sir David Attenborough describes the UK as ‘…one of the most nature depleted places on the Planet’. Sociological and demographic changes and technological advances in our ability to exploit the land for profit and food have been driving forces, underpinned obviously by an increase in the UK population: depending on your sources, 16 million in 1841; 50 million in 1948; 66 million in 2017. But perhaps population growth and ‘progress’ alone are not enough to explain the devastation: it is interesting to explore recent history to see if sociology, for want of a better word, and human nature can shed light on what’s gone wrong and inform us for the future.
In case anyone thinks the decline in British wildlife is a new phenomenon, Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald (very much an establishment figure of his time, and editor of The Field magazine from 1938-1946) was bemoaning the destruction of the English countryside as far back as 1969 in his book The Vanishing Wild Life of Britain. It was written in the wake of Rachel Carson’s seminal 1963 work Silent Spring, which brought to public attention the effects of toxic agricultural chemicals on the environment; in his book Vesey-Fitzgerald discusses not only pesticides and industrial farming but Man’s changing and increasingly distant relationship with the natural world. In the preface, on the subject of vanishing wildlife he puts it most succinctly: ‘…there is nothing new about it. Wild life has always been vanishing from Britain. It has been doing so from the moment that Man began to colonize the island. That is perfectly true. But it is a truth with a difference. And the difference lies in Man himself.’ I may be reading too much into it but there appears to be germ of optimism lurking in the last sentence: Man as the problem but also the solution. However, 50 years on from the book’s publication, looking around me I find little cause for hope. I wonder who among my neighbours would prioritise biodiversity over personal gain and a compromised lifestyle? Probably not enough to do any good. Scale that up and ultimately there’s not much hope for the future of wildlife in the UK unless there is a sea change in environmental respect amongst the population as a whole and hardened resolve in Government, in theory elected to make difficult evidence-based decisions and not just pander to the electorate’s self-interested aspirations.
Nowadays, a buzz-phrase is ‘Environmental Generational Amnesia’ a term coined by Professor Peter Kahn to describe how each generation perceives the world into which it is born, no matter how degraded, as the baseline environmental norm. Of course, this only applies to people who are aware of, or give a damn about, the environment in the first place. Sadly, among most people I encounter on a day-to-day basis environmental ignorance or indifference is standard; and environmental contempt depressingly widespread.
I have only limited experience of the workings of government and statutory nature conservation bodies, and only a superficial understanding of the social history of the nation. Consequently, it’s hard to make generalisations about what’s gone wrong at the national level. It is easier to provide clarity in detail by looking closer to home, treating north Hampshire, where I have lived off and on for more than 60 years, as a case study from which parallels might be drawn elsewhere. From an environmental perspective, here the last half decade is a familiar tale of degradation and ruination, the result mainly of agriculture and urbanisation. But self-interest, greed and callous indifference to the environment play as much a part in the story as political expediency and social necessity. Examining the environmental decline and fall of the Borough of Basingstoke & Deane may be a one-off case study. But I suspect it represents a microcosm of what has happened across south-east England (within the sphere of influence of London) and to varying degrees elsewhere in the vicinity of large conurbations. Scale-up further and the sociological and technological changes that have blighted, and occasionally enhanced, the borough have resonance at the national level as well as globally.
I have mentioned this before but I was born in Basingstoke and still live nearby. Notwithstanding a few pockets of biodiversity richness in the vicinity, the town today is essentially an environmental blot on the landscape and most of the surrounding farmland pretty much a biodiversity desert. But it wasn’t always the case and as recently as the late 1930s its rural society and landscape probably had more in common with the era of Jane Austen (born in 1775 at Steventon, in the borough) than 21st Century Britain, such has been the pace of change.
Before I go any further it’s probably worth setting the scene as far as Basingstoke is concerned. At the end of the WW2 it remained a modest-size market town whose population growth rate over the previous 150 years mirrored much of southern England: 2,589 in 1801; 4,263 in 1851; 13,000 in 1945. Prior to the War it was surrounded by agricultural land that was probably as good for certain types of wildlife as farmland can ever be. Anyway, arguably the richest period for open countryside biodiversity came during the 1930s agricultural depression when many fields remained untilled and hedgerows uncut, and toxic industrial chemicals had not yet appeared on the farmer’s palette.
Above: 50 years ago, I can remember wonderful chalk grassland and colonies of Small Blue butterflies on ground now occupied by Basingstoke’s ‘leisure complex’ and Milestones Museum. There is an irony to the fact that the latter includes among its attractions a ‘network of streets that have been recreated according to those found in Victorian and 1930s Hampshire’ – those would be among the many historical features destroyed by the expansion of Basingstoke.
The onset of war in 1939 saw the start of change: land productivity understandably became paramount, and as much land as possible was turned over to agriculture including areas that historically had never been ploughed. In the era that followed, agriculture and urbanisation altered the environmental landscape forever; and it would be a mistake to see the two as anything other than inextricably linked.
As far as Basingstoke is concerned the environmental effects of WW2 began to be felt before the last German bomb fell. In 1944 a Greater London Plan was prepared by Sir Patrick Abercrombie in order to implement the 1939/1940 Barlow Commission that aimed to ‘disperse’ 1 million people from metropolitan London to outlying towns. As one of these ‘beneficiaries’ it was proposed that Basingstoke receive at the time 20,000 people. Discussions were held between the London County Council (LCC), Hampshire County Council and Basingstoke Borough Council. The presence of existing industry and a mainline railway station were features in favour of the town as a re-settlement site.
Partly as a trip down memory lane, but also to check that my recollections were correct I decided to leaf through the pages of a now-defunct broadsheet called the Hants and Berks Gazette. In the knowledge that Basingstoke Library held it on microfiche I visited only to find the place had become a ‘Discovery Centre’ with rather fewer books than I remember of old and entertainment in the form of a mother-and-baby sing-along. My, how things have changed.
In its day the Gazette was a weekly production and the main media source of information for the community of the time. The births, deaths and announcements pages were the Facebook of their day with extensive adverts fulfilling the roles of EBay and Google. But it was the ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns that I found most illuminating. With distinct parallels to Twitter, personal spats were played out, albeit at a weekly snail’s pace. And disgruntled missives were printed often from titled dignitaries or landowners, the sort who probably referred to Basingstoke as a ‘tyne’.
My research started with the year 1955, the year of my birth but also the time when concerns and objections about the expansion of Basingstoke became most vocal. As I continued my read, the language and tone of letters changed subtly with thinly disguised snobbery and xenophobia increasingly obvious through reference to, for example, fears about introducing so many council houses into the social mix, and the effects that ‘clearance of the slums of London’ would have on the community. There were letters from concerned farmers about the prospect of throngs of ‘newcomers’, unfamiliar with country ways, blocking the streets and preventing the steady flow of animals from the station to the market and slaughterhouse. And even one letter that expressed fears that new residents would dilute the rural Basingstoke accent. Some of the sentiments expressed sound rather familiar don’t you think? Reading the pages of the Gazette confirmed my suspicions that as far as the environmental downfall of Basingstoke was concerned the effects of farming, urbanisation and self-interest were indeed inextricably linked.
On 11 February 1955 the Gazette devoted two thirds of a broadsheet page to reporting the Basingstoke Branch of the National Farmers Union Annual Dinner under the banner headline ‘Basingstoke Over-balanced with Council Houses’. A speech was given by the then Deputy Mayor of the Borough in which a couple of sections caught my eye. On the subject of Basingstoke expansion, he was reported as saying: ‘I want you to impress upon everybody you know to oppose the proposed development tooth and nail.’ He also said: ‘Already Basingstoke – and not only our town but many other towns like it – are overbalanced with council houses owing to the war condition…’ In an aside, another principal speaker, a Brigadier and Commandant of the Police College, offered advice to farmers when dealing with Civil Servants, perhaps something to bear mind when talking to public sector officials today. He said his personal motto was ‘It was only worth talking to them if they were two things – civil and a servant. Some people seemed to forget that when they are vested with a little power, they had to be both civil and a servant and not dictators.’
A week later another half page was devoted to the National Farmers Union under the heading ‘Farmers Attack L.C.C Project’ and the Gazette printed the following: ‘The Basingstoke Branch of the National Farmers Union – a body to which 320 local farmers belong – have adopted a resolution expressing strong opposition to the proposed development of Basingstoke to house London’s overspill’. Interestingly, one of the resolution’s proposers farmed land immediately to the west of ‘old’ Basingstoke and had previously written to the Gazette’s ‘Letters’ pages expressing his opposition to the expansion. However, not long after that he applied to Basingstoke Borough Council for permission to develop sixty-four acres of his land for housing purposes which evoked a spiky response from a Councillor. Reported in the ‘Town Council’ pages in the Gazette the Councillor said he was ‘…surprised at the activity in local building and especially in the case of the 64 acres …it was made by the gentleman who, he understood, had been writing in the local press for a considerable length of time about the taking over of valuable agricultural land for building purposes’. Perhaps with a hint of sarcasm he added: ‘I do not know how he can console himself now that he is taking the land himself with the idea of building houses for private enterprise. I just don’t know how this kind of thing makes sense.’ A spat in the Letters pages ensued, the land was eventually sold for housing and the rest is environmental history.
Above: While the ‘64 acres’ mentioned above was still farmland it supported breeding Lapwings and Skylarks. Long-since destroyed it is now replaced by the bricks, mortar and tarmac of Basingstoke districts and wards Buckskin and Kempshott.
On 25 February 1955 the Gazette reported on a meeting of the Basingstoke Rural District Council where it was noted they had received a letter from the NFU in which they ‘…strongly opposed the proposed development of Basingstoke by the London County Council’. In almost all correspondence I came across it seemed that, rightly or wrongly, LCC were seen as the villains of the piece. The NFU also expressed a fear that the development would not stop at the (then) Borough boundary. Various councillors attempted to assuage these fears with assertions that it would ‘never happen’. With hindsight it looks like the NFU’s fears were grounded.
Above: As an indication of how times have changed, in the early 1960s the Basingstoke Field Society once broke off an evening meeting in Darlington Road (in the heart of the town) to go outside and listen to a singing Nightingale. No chance of that ever happening again of course, given the urbanisation of Basingstoke and the fact that, according to the RSPB, the species has declined by 90% in the last 50 years; habitat loss and degradation are key factors in the songster’s demise.
The first agreement with London County Council was signed in 1959 to build 3,500 houses, and after that Basingstoke never looked back with relentless development being the clarion call. Private as well as Council Housing got the green light and where compliant landowners did not meet the need then compulsory land purchase was a tactic employed by Basingstoke Borough Council. I was intrigued to find that some did not give up without a fight and in 1966 stable owner Alfie Cole drove a pony and trap (containing manure) to Downing Street along with a petition protesting against the compulsory purchase of his 10 acres. However, on further reading it turned out his motives were financial rather than environmental: he was offered £10,000 for the land whereas he claimed it was worth £120,000, or so it was reported.
An indication of urbanisation is provided by population figures and expanding on those previous mentioned they are: 2,589 in 1801 (the first census); 4,263 in 1851; 4,654 in 1861; 13,000 in 1945; 30,130 in 1959; in excess of 113,776 in 2019.
Above: Basingstoke then and now – a Google Map showing an artist’s impression of the expansion and urbanisation of Basingstoke from 1930s market town (yellow), surrounded then by farmland, to modern-day sprawl (red).
I admit to having a rather jaundiced view of Basingstoke, having seen its character, environment and wildlife wilfully eroded and degraded over the last 60 years. However, with regards to the town itself it seems I am not alone, and by no means the first. In the 1821 translation of the Travels Of Cosmo The Third Grand Duke Of Tuscany, Through England, During The Reign Of Charles The Second (1669) we learn: ‘His Highness, having arrived early in Basingstoke, walked on foot through the town which is wretched, both regards to the buildings, the greater part of which are wood, and the complete absence of trade, so that the gratification of his curiosity did not compensate for the fatigue of walking a few paces’. Actually, I rather like the sound of ‘wretched’ wooden Basingstoke, not to mention its ‘absence of trade’. What a pity most of its historic half-timbered buildings have been destroyed, replaced by the soulless sea of concrete that is the modern town centre.
The next article in the series will explore in more detail the effects that changing farming practices and urbanisation have had on wildlife and biodiversity within the Borough of Basingstoke.