Terence Blacker: Putting a price on everything is no way to treat the countryside

The Way We Live: Hills and vales, trees, birds and flowers – all reduced to a spreadsheet


There are moments when 21st-century Britain feels as if it has suddenly become the setting of a satirical novel written by Michael Frayn in the 1960s. The other day, for example, the British Government chose an international conference on the environment to announce that it is to put a price-tag on the British countryside.

The buzz-phrase of the moment is "natural capital". Nick Clegg bandied it about in a speech at the Rio+20 conference. Natural capital and "green growth", he said, represented a break with economic orthodoxy of the past. By 2020, it would be part of our national accounts. Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, stepped forward at the same conference to announce that a Natural Capital Committee had been established by the Government. It was to be overseen by Dieter Helm, an economics professor, and chaired by none other than George Osborne. Its task would be to put a monetary value on Britain's natural features.

It sounds too hilarious to be true, this idea of accountants and bean-counters spreading across the countryside, solemnly examining woods, lakes, fields and hills, checking their economic value in terms of tourism, natural beauty and the environment. But it is dangerous to laugh at the money-obsessed in 2012. They are the masters now.

As a concept, natural capital appeals to Liberal Democrats, sounding and feeling vaguely green but without involving any tricky decisions. It will delight Tories even more by reducing the countryside to a fiscal asset which, if it does not earn its keep financially, can be of benefit to their pals, the developers.

The result will be to impose a hierarchy of worth on the landscape. "We want to put a value on natural assets," says Bob Watson, chief scientist at Defra. "Features like Mount Snowdon or Lake Windermere have a value as do local parks and other features. That value changes according to what we do to them so we can use those numbers to support or oppose the case for development."

There will, in other words, be good countryside and bad countryside. In a manner that will gladden Conservative hearts, the gap between those with an enviable stash of natural capital all around them and the rest – the rural haves and have-nots – will grow. In fact, the criterion for deciding the worth of a natural feature is explicitly tipped towards the wealthy. A large swathe of rural Britain will explicitly be downgraded. In a recent interview, Caroline Spelman put the social and economic value of a tree planted in an urban area at £38,000. Presumably, a tree planted in good countryside with decent property values nearby will also be high. But what of trees in bad countryside? Are they worthless? Are all species of tree of the same value? If a developer sticks a few hundred saplings into the ground having built over an area, does that actually enhance its natural capital? The logic of the plan spirals downwards into absurdity.

There can be few clearer examples of spiritual poverty, of the deadly conviction that to have worth – to be real – everything must have a monetary price, than this sinister initiative. We have seen the scourge of banker-think on our cultural life, with every event and idea now having to justify itself in terms of return on investment, cost-benefit, inputs and outputs, income and outcome, value for money. Now the same miserable, Gradgrindian approach is to be applied to the landscape.

Hills and vales, trees, birds and flowers, and, above all, the human pleasure to be derived from those things, will be reduced to figures on a spreadsheet. How appropriate it is that the Natural Capital Committee is starting its grim work within weeks of the British countryside playing its part in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics – fake, enclosed, primped, and watched by those who have bought expensive tickets.

Prozac for pets? Better off giving it to the owners

That great and growing source of easy money, pet ownership, is now offering new opportunities for ambitious vets, drug companies and animal psychiatrists.

A survey of 1,300 dog-owners, conducted by something called the Companion Animal Behaviour Therapy Study Group, has claimed to prove that 80 per cent of Britain's eight million dogs have psychological problems. They are hyperactive, or suffer from phobic behaviour, or are anxious. They have some form of obsessive compulsive behaviour, licking their paws rather too much, for example, or they show an inappropriate attitude to food.

The answer, apparently, is to consider taking your animal to a pet shrink or a counsellor. Drugs are now on the market, too. A canine Prozac called Reconcile will soon be on the market.

There is, of course, another approach to the problem. If a person has an animal that is miserable, lonely or under-exercised, it may just possibly be that he or she should not own a pet in the first place. Of course, that advice would produce rather less profit.


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