Is Kent still the Garden of England or fast turning into the concrete jungle?

Parcels of countryside around Canterbury are set to vanish forever as gigantic housing estates spring up over the coming years. But, argues Christ Church geographer Peter Vujakovic, the issue is not so much disappearing farmland as how the remainder is managed.

In January pollsters Ipsos MORI released figures which show the public drastically misjudges the amount of built-up land in the UK.

“People are way out in their estimate of how much of the country is densely built up, thinking around half the country is when actually only 0.1% is,” Ipsos Mori reported.

“This will partly reflect the way we live – the majority of people live and spend their time in built-up areas and this will make up most of their mental image of the country.”

This massive overestimate could have implications for how we plan for future land use in the UK, as well as in Kent, the Garden of England.

Kent’s North Downs

As a nation we could become overly protective of green spaces when we perceive these to be seriously under threat, while the real concern ought to be for the way we manage the vast majority of the UK’s agricultural land. Despite some significant infrastructure and urban development, Kent along with most of the UK, remains rural.

Most of the UK is actually defined as either farmland (56.7%) or natural (34.9%). However, much that looks green may actually be a desert in terms of biodiversity if too intensively farmed, or may deteriorate if left moribund – both as a result of economic imperatives.

Effective conservation for biodiversity involves active management of farmland and woodlands. Kent is particularly vulnerable. It is dependent on traditional farming systems, as well as woodland management – coppicing, for example –  and appropriate management of traditional orchards and hop gardens to preserve their heritage.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the designation of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Its landscapes, especially its orchid rich chalk grasslands, are critically dependent on traditional management, in this case the maintenance of sheep and cattle grazing.

The next decade will be crucial. In January Environment Secretary Michael Grove set out his vision for agriculture in a post-Brexit world.

Farmland in west Kent

He assured farmers they would be guaranteed subsidies at the current EU level until the 2022 election, but he envisages a future in which farmers will primarily receive payments for “public goods”, such as increased access and environmental improvements.

This could be good for Kent and other ancient landscapes while leaving other areas vulnerable to further intensification as they compete on world markets. It is too soon to know.

The situation is currently unclear. Not only is the way in which subsidies to farming will be directed uncertain, but also issues such as access to seasonal workers from the EU at harvest time.

Kent, along with a number of other food producing regions is dependent on overseas labour for much of its seasonal workforce. The rural economy is a complex issue and Kent stands to lose or gain much depending on the way in which policy evolves in the next few years.

Peter Vujakovic is Professor of Geography at Canterbury Christ Church University’s School of Human and Life Sciences. He teaches and researches on land use and has written on the natural history and landscapes of the Kentish Stour.

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