How much of England’s countryside is protected?

England's land designationsThe big planning question is whether towns and cities should have more space to grow. How should we balance a growing population and protecting the countryside? These maps show how England currently strikes that balance.

A recent UK NEA study found that less than 2.3% of England is actually built on. When you add in the natural or open areas that go along with development – the parks, allotments, playing fields, reservoirs and gardens – you get nearly 11% of the country that is “irreversibly urban in character” (ONS definition here).

That’s what the first of the three maps shows (click image for a more detailed view). The extent of England’s cities, towns, industrial estates and villages, which are the home of more than 95% of the population.

This 11% of land has taken centuries to urbanise, but in the last few decades the big growth has been in land protected from development. As the centre map shows a huge proportion of the country, roughly 35%, is now designated with one statutory protection or another. For every hectare of built-up land in England we have now protected three hectares of countryside.

This doesn’t really fit with the image of a once green and pleasant land becoming increasingly crowded as development relentlessly eats away at the countryside. The reality is England feels crowded because we all crowd into such small corners of it.

In this map I’ve combined some of the main statutory protections:

  • National Parks
  • Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)
  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
  • Ramsar Convention sites
  • Special Protection Areas
  • Special Areas of Conservation
  • National and Local Nature Reserves
  • Green Belts*

These are all strong designations which largely prevent significant housing growth on undeveloped land. In addition to the major areas shown on the map, there are many more small areas where development is also rightly restricted, including ancient woodland, country parks, and land owned by the Woodland Trust, RSPB, English Heritage and the National Trust.

So what is left? The final map, on the right, shows what might be called “ordinary” countryside, which accounts for more than half of England. This land is nearly empty of residents (it excludes the built-up areas where more than 95% of us live). It is mostly agricultural, a working landscape but supporting very few jobs. Well under 1% of us work in agriculture, and the sector accounts for only half a percent of the economy.

This half of England is not developed, but nor is it of sufficient scenic or wildlife virtue to have statutory protection. It ranges from the beautiful to the dreary, and England would be much the poorer were we to lose it all. However we will also be much poorer if we don’t allow ourselves a little bit more of it to live on.


* You may have noticed the Green Belts are the odd ones out in this list. They alone are designated on location, rather than their intrinsic quality. There’s an argument (for another post!), that the most sustainable locations for housing growth are within, not beyond, the Green Belts. However for the purposes of this map, I wanted to show the full extent of currently protected land, including Green Belts.


6 thoughts on “How much of England’s countryside is protected?

    • Thanks. I’ve removed double-counting from the analysis, so 35% has at least one of those broad protected designations (mostly Green Belt, AONB or National Park). The 7% in that article seems to be just for designations relating to wildlife (which of course Green Belt is not), and only the strongest designations at that (so largely SSSI). So both figures are correct, they’re just showing different types of protection. Personally I think we’d be better off if we designated a bit more for wildlife, and and a bit less for Green Belt.

  1. An interesting article. It is worth recalling that many very beautiful areas have never received protection because they were thought not to face any threats. Examples include the Yorkshire Wolds, the Herefordshire Marches, the Leicestershire & Rutland uplands, the Mid-Cheshire hills, the Teme valley, (most of) rural Northumberland, the Mid-Devon river valleys, Mid-Suffolk etc.

  2. Combining all the different protections into a single map, the 35% map, is really useful. However, you miss a major further designation that also largely stops development, flood zones, which in parts of the country are rather extensive. Eg. nearly all the area between Bristol and Weston-super-mare that is not greenbelt or AONB, etc, is classified as flood zones 2 and 3, and so nearly impossible to get planning permission to build on for that reason.

    • Thanks. Yes quite right, there are lots of other restrictions on development, of which flooding is probably the most extensive. The Environment Agency interactive flood risk map shows the huge River Severn flooding area you mention:

      There are also lots of practical issues of infrastructure (access to services, road capacity etc) which can limit development in many areas. One of the ironies of the Green Belt is it often pushes urban growth to locations that are more sensitive and less sustainable.

  3. Pingback: The True Scale of the Housing Crisis | Barney's Blog

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