Perhaps the biggest argument brought up when a new build is proposed is overcrowding.

This argument typically focuses on the fear of urban sprawl, which is the term used to describe the rapid and unrestricted growth in urban areas of housing, commercial development, and roads over large expanses of land with little concern for urban planning.

The disadvantages of this include:

  • Loss of agricultural land and public spaces.
  • Increase in pollution in city centres and more traffic congestion in the rural-urban fringe.
  • Deforestation and the loss of hedgerows and fields which can further damage animal habitats and ecosystems.

Now, we know this sounds bad, but it also begs the question: with 209,331 km2 of land, just how much of Great Britain has actually been built upon?

How Much of Britain Has Been Built Upon?

Professor Alasdair Rae from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning created ‘The Land Cover Atlas’ to show the variety and volume of different land uses across the UK.

Amazingly, this Atlas showed that urban areas take up only six per cent of UK land. In fact, there is more land in the UK covered by peat bogs (nine per cent) than is taken up by urban areas.

Now, this isn’t to say there is 94 per cent of UK land that could be used for building. In fact, looking further into this report, we can see that:

  • 29% of the UK is pastures.
  • 27% of the UK non-irrigated arable land (land where crops are planted).
  • 24% of the UK is forest and other natural land (beaches, moors, etc.).
  • 11% of the UK is wetlands.

When all of this is laid out so clearly, it’s easy to see why people worry about overcrowding.

CORINE map of the united kingdom

Source: CORINE Map of the United Kingdom (cite: Alasdair Rae, University of Leicester)

Where in the UK is More Built Upon?

Continuous Urban Fabric (CUF) is the term used to describe land areas where 80-100% of the land’s surface is built upon. Anyone who’s been to more than one area in the UK will know that not all cities – or even towns – are created equal. Some areas are going to have a higher CUF than others.

For example, in the City of London, CUF makes up 98% of the surrounding area. This is by far the highest in the country by a significant amount. But, the City of London makes up approximately 0.1% of the whole of Britain.

So, despite 83% of us living in urban areas, most local authorities have more unbuilt upon land than otherwise. In 2017, the University of Leicester published a detailed analysis of each local authority in the country using CORINE data to demonstrate this.

CORINE map of Cornwall

Source: University of Leicester, The Centre for Landscape and Climate Research and Specto Natura and supported by Defra and the European Environment Agency.

Cornwall covers 3,563 km² of land in the UK, yet only 3.5% of the county is urban fabric, and none of it is considered continuous.

If you exclude Exeter, Plymouth and Torquay, then the urban sprawl in Devon (which covers 6,707 km²) is at its highest in Taunton Deane at 5.4%.

Of course, in large towns and cities, the percentage of urban sprawl will be higher, but these areas mentioned are also tiny. To give you some perspective, Torbay has an urban fabric of 65%, but it can fit more than seven times into Taunton Deane and almost 57 times into Cornwall.

This is to say that although there are many buildings and urban space in cities, there is still a massive amount of land in the South West that is not built upon.

Old Tin House in Cornwall overlooking the sea

Can All Land Be Built On?

To put it simply, no. Not all land can be built on.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons why land can’t be built on, and this is why it can be so difficult to get planning permission for a building project despite the apparent wealth of land you can see with your own eyes.

Some of the reasons land can’t be built on include:

  • Preserving the aesthetic beauty of rural spaces.
  • Land otherwise being used for agricultural purposes.
  • The land is privately owned.

This is all without considering the practical reasons behind why some types of land can’t be built on affordably or safely. These include peat bogs and salt marshes where it would be expensive, or outright impossible, to convert into an area that could be built on.

Returning to the South West, a sizeable amount of the land consists of coastlines, beaches and dunes which cannot be built upon, which helps explain why the CUF for this area is so low.

Hyde Park in Autumn

Areas of Natural Beauty and Sites of Specific Scientific Interest

Part of the appeal of land in the UK is also the amount of culture and research benefits. These designated areas are known as Areas of Natural Beauty or Sites of Specific Scientific Interest and cannot be built upon.

Green Belts

Green belts are buffers of open land between towns or between towns and the countryside. They’re designed to stop cities from spreading and merging into each other, preserve historical areas, and protect the local environment.

In total, Green Belts make up around 13% of land in Britain.

Green Urban Spaces

While some land may be technically built upon, it can still preserve some green space. These spaces are called ‘green urban spaces’ or ‘open spaces’ and include, but are not limited to:

  • National parks
  • Golf courses
  • Sports fields

Open spaces are often taken into account when designing bigger builds such as university campuses and trading estates. So, while these land areas aren’t technically ‘built upon’, they’re unlikely to be converted into more buildings.

With it broken down, it seems far more reasonable that such a small percentage of the UK’s land is built upon. However, new technologies are bound to change how much we can feasibly build, and cultural shifts are bound to change how much we want to develop.

So, while not much of the UK is built on, it doesn’t mean the remainder can be used for more development. If you’re considering building on land that you own and would like help with planning applications in Devon, get in touch and speak to an expert member of our team today.

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