Natural capital (2007)
Authors: Pascal Buléon, Louis Shurmer-Smith



At a time when global warming and sea-level rise dominate political agendas almost everywhere, concerns for the environment continue to produce contradictory positions. Whether policies are progressed, invariably depends on whose interest is at stake. This may emerge out of a local campaign against an airport extension, motorway by-pass or pollution threat, but equally, on occasion, from a much publicised government-held view in the face of international legislation. In the mid 1980s, Britain held out against the imposition of the EC directive on environmental assessment because of a firm belief that its existing land-use planning system already took these factors into account in development control. Similarly, in the late 1990s, the French government, under pressure from its large hunting lobby, together with foresters and landowners, shrank from immediately applying the EU’s new “Habitat” directive on protection of endangered natural sites, as well as later restrictions on the right to hunt migrating birds. In terms of public opinion, waking up to environmental issues has, arguably, been much slower in France than in Britain.

The growth of popular ecological awareness was to gain momentum through sporadic environmental disasters. The sinking of the Amoco Cadiz in March 1978 off the coast of Brittany resulted in the worst spread of oil pollution ever recorded at that time. The disaster focussed public attention on the vulnerability of the natural environment as a result of the everyday operations of the oil industry. The potential threat of an even greater disaster, France’s massive nuclear programme, was seized on when the decision to build a huge power station on the rugged Cap Sizun peninsula in western Brittany was announced in 1979. Plogoff would become the next “battlefield” in a growing environmental campaign. In southern England, a different ‘battle” was being fought around Twyford Down to prevent the construction of a motorway by-pass around the historic city of Winchester, through an Iron Age hill fort, whilst to the north the so-called “Battle of Newbury” was taking place in woodland about to be felled to make way for another motorway by-pass.

As atmospheric pollution began to top the environmental agenda, so too did the contradictions, given the lack of a holistic approach. The phenomenon of acid rain was already recognised in Scandinavia in the 1950s, and its damaging effects had apparently doubled in Europe in the ensuing two decades, with France one of the worst offenders for all types of noxious emissions by 1980. However, it was France that soon became one of the most successful European countries in reducing emissions of Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) largely attributable to the development of nuclear power. France also became an active contributor to monitoring the effects of the dumping of noxious waste and drew up anti-pollution legislation in 1975. This related largely to industrial waste, with collective treatment centres set up near to the plants in question. Less publicity, at least initially, was given to the contamination of underground water resources in Brittany, resulting from intensive agriculture, notably large-scale piggeries and battery-poultry breeding, together with excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers. The seepage of nitrates and phosphates into water supplies was exacerbated by the demolition of stone-wall field boundaries causing soil erosion and flooding. Here in Brittany, a previously poor peripheral region, was the negative side of the official (and successful) policy to modernise farming, the price was now being paid for agricultural progress.

In England, water management used to be a wholly public sector activity until water privatisation in 1989. The new public utility companies inevitably added a level of complexity where a mixture of commercial considerations and regulatory constraints drive investment decisions. The Environment Agency itself as the overall regulatory authority is also responsible for water pollution control, flood defence and land drainage, fisheries, navigation and harbours. Under the 1991 Water Resources Act, all these functions are carried out “having regard to the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty and amenity, and recreational use.”

The underlying principle of countryside planning and protection is that nature conservation, public access and economic activity can be accommodated through sensitive management without detriment to the environment. In both France and Britain, there exists a comparable range of more restrictive rural policy tools that focus on specially designated areas, covering green belts, national and regional parks, nature reserves and protected coastlines. In Britain the green belts have a special importance given both the longer history and greater geographical concentration of urbanisation, necessitating the containment of urban sprawl very early on (Town and Country Planning Act, 1947). Implementation was not without conflict, with pressures from both central and local government representing different balances of interest. In contrast, the designation of national parks dating from 1949 in England and 1960 in France, were seen as part of a more positive policy approach to countryside protection. The seven French parks were more narrowly defined in terms of particular scientific interest and located exclusively in mountainous terrain. They were, however, soon complemented by much greater number of regional parks, six of which have proximity to the Channel coast. In southern England, most of the “Heritage Coasts” designated in 1986 lie within National Parks or “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”

Both countries have well-established and comprehensive land-use planning systems, but in the final analysis it is people who interpret and apply the regulations. The culture in southern England has long been strongly conservationist. It is here, after all, where NIMBYism originated. Public enquiries on contentious development proposals are far more frequent than on the other side of the Channel, where the trace of the “Route des Estuaires” along the north coast was approved without entrenched opposition. The long-awaited development of a multi-modal transport corridor along the south coast, east of Brighton and across Kent, the “Garden of England,” is likely to be a very different story.