Five ways the British landscape changed in 10 years

By Daniel Dunford
BBC Data Journalist

  • Published
Promo image showing the RAF Lyneham solar farm before and after

Britain is more built-on than ever, with 44.8 million buildings in total at the end of the decade, up from 40.6 million in 2010.

But this total accounts for just 1.4% of British land, compared with 40% covered by woodland, the natural environment, rivers and lakes, and a further 45% by agricultural land.

The data comes from the largest land survey of its type by the Ordnance Survey (OS), which does not cover Northern Ireland.

We've pulled together some before-and-after pictures showing some of the significant shifts over the last decade, as recognised by OS surveyors.

1. Renewable power

Growth of the renewable energy industry has brought with it an increase in infrastructure.

Wind power now accounts for one-fifth of total electricity use in the UK, compared with just 2% in 2009, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Solar energy accounted for 3.9% in 2018, up from 0.01% in 2010.

Part of that is thanks to the 160,000 solar panels placed in 2015 on the grounds of RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.

It is now the largest solar farm in the UK, with the capacity to power 10,000 local homes and an on-site military training college.

2. Global attractions

At the start of the decade, the Olympic Park was just beginning to take shape in Stratford, east London, ahead of the 2012 Games.

Ten years on, what was the Olympic Stadium is now West Ham FC's home ground, the Aquatics Centre is a public pool and the whole site is now the free-to-enter Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Another global attraction from the 2010s is the Harry Potter section of the Warner Bros Studio Tour in Watford. It first opened in 2012 but there has since been expansion.

The detail shown on the OS map is largely down to Tom Watts, a ground surveyor covering the area.

He had to persuade Warner Bros security to let him in to measure each of the new buildings and was eventually rewarded with a tour.

Each time the OS ground and aerial surveying teams find a new physical object, spot one that has changed or is no longer there, they alter the map. There have been more than 360 million changes since 2010.

This can be as subtle as a kerb being taken in or a front garden being paved over, which is important to record for things like flood planning.

OS head of media Robert Andrews described ground surveyors like Mr Watts as "looking at the world like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix - they see lines and curves where we see roads, buildings and landscapes".

This attention to detail is combined with local knowledge and contact with planning authorities, but the ground teams are also assisted - when the weather allows - by drones and two OS planes.

They sweep back and forth like a lawnmower across target areas, taking hi-res photographs. These are then stitched together and analysed by artificial intelligence to try to spot what has changed since the previous survey.

The technological advances are reflected also in what the OS data is used for. In 1791 they were set up with an initial task of mapping the south coast in case of French invasion.

More than two centuries later, their data is used in almost every app on your smartphone and they are working to map the precise locations of lamp posts so they can host sensors for self-driving cars.

3. New roads

Although not yet ready for self-driving cars, there are now 4,000 sq km of road in Britain, an increase of nearly 10% since 2010. More roads were built in every part of Great Britain.

Mr Andrews said the mapping of new roads and buildings was "like painting the Forth Bridge - as soon as you've finished surveying an area you need to start it again".

Neatly illustrating his point is one of the most striking new roads in the past decade: the Queensferry Crossing erected in 2017, next to the famous Forth Bridges that link Edinburgh to north-east Scotland.

4. New towns

Housing has been one of the most significant political talking points of the last 10 years, and Gordon Brown ended the last decade promising five new "eco-towns" to try to counter the shortfall in available homes.

While political events since 2010 didn't quite work out exactly how Mr Brown might have planned, Northstowe, a sustainably built new town in Cambridgeshire, has made an impact noticeable from the sky.

It's still a work-in-progress but eventually 10,000 homes will replace what was farmland, a golf course and a former airfield.

5. Water features

Another feature spotted by surveyors is the increase in ponds and waterways that have come up either naturally as new properties are built, or as part of manufactured efforts to avoid flooding in residential areas.

For example, the housing development near Romsey in Hampshire, shown above, is accompanied by a couple of new ponds.

But in other cases, like this development near the most well-known new town, Milton Keynes, existing ponds have been diverted to make way for homes.

All satellite images from Google Earth. They were selected from different dates due to the quality of images available - each time the closest good quality image to either 2010 or 2020 was selected.