The following is taken from three BBC News articles in June 2015. There is a link between all three. That our population is out of control has been evident for some time, and Nature’s inevitable response is the subject of the third piece. The solution lies with us, and should be top of every political agenda. I predict that beyond today’s news we will hear no more until the next dire warning.
- Increasing Primary School Population in England
The primary school population in England has continued to rise sharply, with 94,000 extra pupils this year, reaching the highest levels since the 1970s. The 2.1% increase in primary numbers is equivalent to six more pupils for every school. “Minority ethnic pupils made up 71% of the increase,” says the Department for Education’s school census report. The annual figures show there are now more super-sized primary schools. It will mean more funding demands to create extra places and pressure on places for families looking for schools. There are now 87 primary schools with more than 800 pupils, up from 77 in 2014 and 58 in 2013. The number of infants in classes above the limit of 30 pupils has increased again – with 100,800 pupils in these over-sized classes, an increase of 8% compared with 2014. The number has more than doubled since 2012, when there were about 47,000 infants in classes of more than 30. In 2008, the figure was fewer than 25,000.
The figures from the annual school census show numbers rising across the state school system – up by 2.1% in primary and 0.1% in secondary – to a total of 8.4 million pupils. This is an increase of about 200,000 children in two years. The rising population has been a particular challenge for primary schools, which have been having to expand to absorb the increasing numbers. But this rising population wave has now reached secondary schools. The analysis says that the rise in primary school numbers is particularly driven by rising number of ethnic minority pupils, accounting for more than two-thirds of the increase. In primary schools, 30.4% of pupils are from an ethnic minority, compared with 29.5% the previous year. But there are wide regional variations. In the inner London boroughs, 81% of pupils are from ethnic minorities; while in north-east England, the figure is below 11%.
And at council level, in Newham 94% of pupils are from ethnic minorities, while in Durham the figure is below 5%. In inner London, the biggest ethnic group in primary school are black pupils, predominantly from an African background, with Asian pupils the second biggest group. In secondary schools, about 27% of pupils are ethnic minorities, which the report says represents an increase of about 30% in six years. Despite the rising number of pupils there has not been a growth in the number of primary schools, which have been consistently falling since the 1980s. Instead, primary schools have been getting bigger, with more pupils in schools with more than 800 pupils.
‘Good local school’
Funding this demand for extra places – forecast to be another 460,000 during the next five years – has been a continuing pressure on the schools budget.
In the general election campaign, the Conservatives committed themselves to protecting per-pupil spending, including for rising numbers. A DfE spokesman said: “The average infant class size has remained stable at 27.4 and the number of unlawfully large infant classes has fallen – down 137 compared to 2009 – all despite a small increase in pupil numbers since last year. “To help schools respond to rising pupils numbers, the government invested £5bn between 2011 and 2015 to support local authorities – creating almost half a million new places. On top of that, we have committed to invest a further £7bn on new school places over the next six years, to support the new school places needed all the way up to September 2021. The government has also opened over 250 free schools since 2010 and we are committed to creating at least 500 more during this parliament, creating over 400,000 new school places and ensuring even more parents have access to a good local school for their child.”
- Shrinking Green Belt
The number of new homes being approved on greenbelt land in England has increased five-fold in the last five years, according to figures obtained by the BBC. In 2009-10 planning permission was granted for 2,258 homes, while in 2014-15 the figure rose to 11,977. In the last year alone the number of approvals doubled. The government insists greenbelt development is a matter for local planning authorities. Green belts were created to prevent urban sprawl and stop neighbouring towns merging into one another. England has 14 green belts, covering 13% of total land.
Government policy states that the greenbelt should only be built on in “exceptional circumstances”. But local authorities, hard pressed to supply land for development, are turning to green belt sites to try to satisfy housing demand. Some estimates suggest that 250,000 homes need to be built each year to solve the housing crisis in the UK. Areas feeling the most pressure include Hertfordshire, where the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) says sites for 34,000 homes have already been proposed, with another 10,000 waiting in the wings.
“We are getting continual statements by government ministers, correspondence from government departments to various bodies like to us saying it is their determination to protect the greenbelt and the wider countryside,” said Kevin Fitzgerald from Hertfordshire CPRE. “But, nevertheless, throughout our county, our planning authorities are coming out with these proposals for quite major development.” Research carried out on behalf of BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme by Glenigan, a leading provider of construction data, found a sharp increase in the number of houses securing full planning approval in the greenbelt. In 2009/10, 2,258 homes were approved. In 2013/2014, the number had risen to 5,607. By the following year, 2014/2015, it had more than doubled to 11,977. Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis told the programme it was up to local authorities to decide the future of their greenbelt:
“Greenbelt is something that has been there to give a strategic protection to those green lungs. We have outlined what local areas need to do if they want to go through a review of their greenbelt. It is very much a matter of those local authorities. They are the best placed people locally, democratically accountable locally, to decide where is the right location for any development.” Professor Paul Cheshire from the London School of Economics said the idea of the greenbelt was misunderstood and had nothing to do with the quality of the land: “You only need a tiny amount of the least environmentally-attractive greenbelt to solve the housing land shortage for generations to come, whereas Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks do provide huge benefit.”
‘Short-term economic boost’
But File on 4 has found evidence of proposed development even within these highly-protected landscapes. The programme has seen a survey of Local Planning Authorities by Natural England which found that 37% had housing allocations in or around Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). That adds up to 30,000 houses within the boundaries, and another 20,000 just outside. The North Wessex Downs AONB is currently facing proposals for 1,400 homes around a growing science and innovation campus at Harwell. Henry Oliver, director of the North Wessex AONB, said these projects could have a huge impact on the rural landscape. “This has been here for thousands of years. The idea that it’s worth trading all this wonderful landscape off against a relatively short-term economic boost is not one that I find acceptable.” In response, Vale of White Horse District Council leader Matthew Barber said economic growth is driving up housing need and the council has to plan accordingly. “We have a high housing target that we need to meet, and we have judged in this case that includes this site, in the AONB next to a major employment site. The alternatives to that, we fear, would be unsustainable additions to other communities elsewhere in the district.”
Elsewhere, Dover District Council has approved planning permission for around 600 dwellings within the Kent Downs AONB. Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, said the growing pressure on protected landscapes is happening because central government is not providing enough leadership, causing the system to fail.
“I think overall planning can be best described as being very broken,” he explained. “I don’t think there has ever been a point in the post-war era where planning has been as demoralised, as underfunded and lacking in strategic direction as it is now.” However, Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis insists that protection for the countryside is being maintained. “I think we’ve got a system now that trusts local people to make those decisions, and the National Planning Policy Framework is actually very clear. Great weight should be given to conserving landscapes and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated that it is in the public interest.”
- Earth ‘entering new extinction phase’ – US study
The Earth has entered a new period of extinction, a study by three US universities has concluded, and humans could be among the first casualties. The report, led by the universities of Stanford, Princeton and Berkeley, said vertebrates were disappearing at a rate 114 times faster than normal. The findings echo those in a report published by Duke University last year. One of the new study‘s authors said: “We are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event.” The last such event was 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs were wiped out, in all likelihood by a large meteor hitting Earth. “If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on,” said the lead author, Gerardo Ceballos.
The scientists looked at historic rates of extinction for vertebrates – animals with backbones – by assessing fossil records. They found that the current extinction rate was more than 100 times higher than in periods when Earth was not going through a mass extinction event. Since 1900, the report says, more than 400 more vertebrates had disappeared. Such a loss would normally be seen over a period of up to 10,000 years, the scientists say. The study – published in the Science Advances journal – cites causes such as climate change, pollution and deforestation. Given the knock-on effect of ecosystems being destroyed, the report says benefits such as pollination by bees could be lost within three human generations. Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich said: “There are examples of species all over the world that are essentially the walking dead. We are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says at least 50 animals move closer to extinction every year. Around 41% of all amphibians and 25% of mammals are threatened with extinction, it says.
Most at risk: the lemur
According to the IUCN, the lemur faces a real struggle to avoid extinction in the wild in the coming years. The group says that 94% of all lemurs are under threat, with more than a fifth of all lemur species classed as “critically endangered”. As well as seeing their habitat in Madagascar destroyed by illegal logging, lemurs are also regularly hunted for their meat, the IUCN says. Last year, a report by Stuart Pimm, a biologist and extinction expert at Duke University in North Carolina, also warned mankind was entering a sixth mass extinction event. But Mr Pimm’s report said the current rate of extinction was more than 1,000 times faster than in the past, not 114, as the new report claims. The new report’s authors said it was still possible to avoid a “dramatic decay of biodiversity” through intensive conservation, but that rapid action was needed.