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The Green Belt - Nice or Noose

In an earlier article I asked what the election had in store for planners and developers, and I came to the mixed conclusion that we might expect a comparatively quiet time, given the upheaval and constant tinkering that has beset the profession/industry in the last parliament. Now the ace-tinkerer, Sir Eric Pickles, has moved from his post at the DCLG, we should indeed expect a period of consolidation, all the more so when the coalition’s last act was to produce a comprehensive update of the GPDO, the first since 1995. Surely, when we’ve printed 160+ pages and understood the new numbering and rehashed PD rights, we’ve earned the right to a bit of peace and quiet?

Not if The Adam Smith Institute has anything to do with it. In his controversial paper, “The Green Noose”, the Institute’s Tom Papworth has declared war, not only on his traditional foes, the CPRE and The Daily Telegraph, but also on whichever party won the election, because, common to each manifesto, was the mantra “we will build more houses, but the Green Belt is safe in our hands”. Tom is having none of this, and, if he gets his way, the new government will be forced to consider radical changes to its safe and outdated stance that would have us believe that the Green Belt is fit for purpose.

It was probably not a vote winner to suggest that the Green Belt is expendable, though Labour was open enough to admit to the possibility if it helps in building enough homes, and the Lib Dems (who?) accepted that brownfield sites and new communities will not hit their ambitious target without greenfield sites. The Conservatives, in the spirit of localism, leave Green Belt definition and use to local councils, so there is little prospect of radical thinking there. I presume that, without the Lib Dems (who?) to promote them, the ring of new towns between Oxford and Cambridge won’t happen, but the houses will still have to be built somewhere. UKIP’s solitary MP “will protect the Green Belt”, though they don’t say from what (or from whom).

“The Green Noose” is a good read – how often can you say that about a planning document? – and, given a fair hearing, will put a rocket under those who mistakenly believe that the housing crisis is going to be solved by building all the dwellings that this country needs in existing towns on brownfield land. So what is the premise behind this paper, of which I, for one, am a fan?

Put bluntly, the Green Belt has had its day, failing to fulfill the objectives behind its creation, taking away green space from locations where it is needed and valued, increasing the cost of housing while reducing the size of dwellings and contributing to urban sprawl and ever- longer journeys to work.

Towns and cities with Green Belts afford protection to 13% of England, at a time when only 9% of the country is actually built on – half of this back gardens. If that figure were increased to 9.5%, there would be no housing crisis, as 2,000,000 homes could be built over the next decade. The best place to find this 0.5% is in the Green Belt, much of which is already given over to intensive agriculture. To build on this land would allow the new houses to be of a decent size with worthwhile gardens, at a time when we build the smallest houses, most expensive in Europe and squeeze them onto postage stamp plots. The Institute’s premise is that urban open spaces, let’s call them parks, are better used and more valued by town dwellers than the Green Belt ever has been or ever will be. Far better to be building outside the urban areas and providing better quality open space on brownfield land.

The original notion – good old Ebenezer Howard – was that garden cities would allow people to move out of the big cities to self-sufficient, self-supporting settlements beyond the Green Belt. You only have to fight for a seat on a commuter train into London from beyond the Green Belt to know that, if it ever worked, it’s not working now. The houses that are being built, around Aylesbury, Banbury and Bicester, in my part of the world, are, let’s face it, suburbs for M40 and Chiltern Line commuters or there because Oxford is strangled by its own Green Belt. The Green Belt is merely a gap that we cross in order to get to work in London, and, when we want quality time outside the urban areas, we head, not for the Green Belt, but for an AONB or a National Park. The concept of the Green Belt having value by virtue of its openness alone is misconceived and counter-productive.

In Tom Papworth’s view, it’s time for a complete re-think of the whole concept, starting with the hitherto unthinkable proposition that the Green Belt, no longer fit for purpose, should be scrapped. He argues that development in only a small part of the Green Belt would deal with the housing crisis, increase the quality of new homes, reduce the pressure to build in areas already lacking decent open space, come to grips with ever increasing housing costs in urban areas where building land is at a premium, all at no real cost to the environment, amenities or historical value. If only we had a government with the strength of character and courage to grasp this particular nettle.

When proposing the unthinkable, it’s always prudent to have a fall-back position, and,, in “The Green Noose”, there are two. Okay, so a government whose support is in the shires is probably not going to abolish the Green Belt, though HS2 protesters might be forgiven their doubts on that score. So, what do we do instead?

  • • We build on those intensively farmed parts of the Green Belt that are of little value to local communities in need of recreational space and access to the countryside. This allows protection to parks, playing fields and urban green space, used and valued by more people than will ever spend quality time in the Green Belt. Not one to shy away from controversy, Tom Papworth submits that “Green Belt policy preserves large amounts of plentiful green space around rich people, at the expense of rare green space near poorer people “ - come on, Tom, get off the fence and tell us what you really think!
  • We look at land within walking distance of existing commuter infrastructure – let’s call them stations – and we build decent houses of the size and quality built in the Netherlands or Germany, where the average new build is about 40% larger than its British counterpart. By this simple re-think of Green Belt strategy we could build a million new homes in places that are, by definition, sustainable and where commuting costs would be reduced by maybe 50 miles a day across the no-go zone.

These ideas may seem radical, but only to people for whom the housing crisis is not a personal problem and for the “I’m alright Jacks” already surrounded by the benefits of living in the protected countryside. It is time for the Green Belt to be the subject of a thorough review, in the same way that town centres have been. Times change and what may once have done the job required of it cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged when its purpose has changed. If we are to build the houses we need for a generation already priced out of the “to buy” and private rental markets, at a time when the term “affordable housing “ is, frankly, a bad joke, then this is not time to be too precious about the anachronism that the Green Belt has become.

Give “The Green Noose” some time. The facts and opinions presented by its author will raise serious doubt in the minds of those who might think the Green Belt is good, just because it’s greenish. It will need politicians with more bottle than is usually associated with the breed to give it the attention it deserves, but maybe they are to be found in the new parliament. Tom Papworth is probably having too much fun poking his stick in this particular hornet’s nest to be a politician – shame. Maybe next time he’ll turn his attention to the vexing question of why so many bog-standard buildings come to be listed – I can’t wait.

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