In defence of the Green Belt: two recent newpaper letters

Attacks on the Green Belt are nothing new, but they do appear to be growing. The attacks are not coming, on the whole, from national politicians: there is an election soon, and politicians know how popular the Green Belt is. Indeed, Eric Pickles has just reiterated that ‘the essential characteristics of green belts are their openness and their permanence’.

The fact that we continue to lose alarming areas of Green Belt locally contradicts the rhetoric. I heard countless examples of Green Belt loss at a packed public meeting last night in Luton, organised by CPRE Bedfordshire, CPRE Hertfordshire and the Chiltern Society, and I know there are examples across the country (CPRE will be publishing a major report on this tomorrow). But I suppose it is some sort of consolation to hear national politicians queuing up to say how much they love the Green Belt, and that it will be safe with them next time.

But the attacks on Green Belt policy from the commentariat and developer-funded think-tanks are relentless. A recent edition of Radio 4’s Costing the Earth had in the anti-Green Belt camp not only the full-time anti-Green Belt polemicist, Paul Cheshire, but also Sir Simon Jenkins, former Chair of the National Trust, and Danny Dorling, who has argued persuasively against the simplistic view that simply building more houses will solve the housing crisis. (It was notable that Tom Heap, the presenter, could not find any ‘ordinary people’ to blame the Green Belt for their high house prices and long commutes.)

In the last week CPRE has had letters in defence of the Green Belt in the Observer and Independent. My letter in the Observer was in response to an excellent critique of the housing crisis by Rowan Moore. Paul Miner’s letter in the Independent responded to a piece by Ian Birrell which skilfully summarised almost every misconception about the Green Belt peddled by Paul Cheshire and the anti-planning, developer-funded think-tanks.

The letters are below. In the summer, CPRE will be publishing a report on anti-Green Belt myths, working title, Pestilential Nonsense Unmasked.

The Observer, 22 March

Rowan Moore is right about almost every aspect of the housing crisis. But he is wrong on the Green Belt. Green Belts exist largely to prevent towns and cities sprawling into the countryside and coalescing. Land on the edge of cities faces great pressures and some Green Belt may indeed be “of little environmental or economic value”. But as you develop the urban fringe, you create new urban fringe (“of low environmental quality”). Build on that, and the next bit and the bit after, and before long the green belt will disappear.

If landowners believe that all they have to do to get planning permission is to drive down the environmental quality of their land, the purpose of the Green Belt will be destroyed. Let us instead be clear that Green Belt boundaries will only be altered in exceptional circumstances. Then we can set about improving the Green Belt’s environmental and amenity value.

Shaun Spiers

The Independent, 25 March

Ian Birrell’s solution to England’s housing crisis (“How to end the housing crisis: forget sentimentality and build on the green belt”, 23 March) does not stand up to scrutiny. If we loosened Green Belt controls we’d simply allow more land to be built on, in places where developers can get the best prices.

The recent experience of countries such as Spain and Ireland has shown that this approach is blunt, ineffective, and highly damaging to the countryside. Meanwhile, the government reforms that Mr Birrell praises have made it more difficult to build affordable homes in the rural villages and inner London boroughs where they are so desperately needed.

In 2014, a CPRE report found that there is enough suitable brownfield land, available now, for at least one million new homes. We should use this land before even considering going into the green belt.

Green Belt provides the countryside-next-door for 30 million people: whether it’s for horse riding, walking, or just relief from tarmac. Any reduction of the Green Belt  on the spurious basis that it is of low environmental quality will only encourage speculators to degrade Green Belt land they hold in the hope that it will encourage planners to allow building on that land, too.

Moreover, with the growing global pressures of climate change and population growth, the farmland that we currently have – both within and outside of the green belt – will become more valuable in every respect.

Paul Miner, CPRE Planning Campaign Manager

11 Responses to “In defence of the Green Belt: two recent newpaper letters”

  1. 1 Kristian Niemietz March 26, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    “the full-time anti-Green Belt polemicist, Paul Cheshire”
    -For the sake of clarity though, you need to add that your definition of a ‘polemicist’ is ‘someone who is not a Nimby’. Cheshire is an academic who knows his stuff, unlike the ignorant and contemptible people who make up your organisation.

    • 2 sspiers March 26, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      For the sake of clarity, Kristian Niemietz, as well as being a charmer, is an anti-Green Belt polemicist from a developer-funded, anti-planning think-tank.

      • 3 Kristian Niemietz March 27, 2015 at 11:22 am

        Ha ha! That reminds me: When I wrote my first housing paper, we sent the draft out to a couple of reviewers. One of them then said: “…the least bright ones among your critics will cry ‘That work must have been funded by the big developers!'”

        His words, not mine. I’m just the messenger. (A gleeful messenger, for sure, but a messenger nonetheless.)

      • 4 sspiers March 27, 2015 at 12:10 pm

        Kristian, sorry if I’ve jumped to false conclusions. Where does the IEA get its funding?

      • 5 Kristian Niemietz March 27, 2015 at 1:50 pm

        Mostly private individuals supporting the cause, and, of course, subscriptions. Some corporate funding, well-diversified, with no single sector/industry accounting for a significant share.
        Anyway, who cares? I never ask anyone to take my arguments in good faith, everything’s fully sourced, referenced & verifiable. Anyone who wants to tear my work to shreds is welcome to try.

    • 6 alf April 9, 2015 at 8:42 pm

      I’m sorry, Kristian, but you have just added zilch to the argument with your childish abuse. In fact, anyone who uses the word “nimby” to dismiss the valid arguments of people they’d rather ride roughshod over deserves zero respect. It is strange that you appear to be some kind o academic, yet shout abuse like a drunk. You’ve done no credit to the Institute of Economic Affairs.

  2. 7 Lawrence March 26, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    “Build on that, and the next bit and the bit after, and before long the green belt will disappear.”

    Oh dear, that’s the biggest green belt myth of all! Being the “green lungs” of cities comes a close second.

    At the current rate of building it would take 400 years for the green belt to “disappear” under housing. The population would have to triple to 200 million to occupy them. Green belt has sprawled far more than housing in the last 35 years.

    Many of the attacks on green belt relate to the arbitrary, non-ecological boundary and depth, plus its status as a simplistic political slogan. There are also plenty of examples of nonsensical green belt designation, so claims it’s all rolling open fields aren’t credible.

    The aims of green belt may be laudable but as a single policy it doesn’t form an integrated, sustainable planning strategy. Other nations can base their planning on logic and ecology without becoming concrete jungles, why can’t we?

    Limiting development to just brownfield of course sends the value of this scarce resource into the stratosphere, making many sites non-viable when clean-up costs are added on top. Brownfield will naturally be re-developed when land becomes plentiful, lower its value. The CPRE is putting the cart before the horse here.

  3. 8 Alice Crampin March 26, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    My goodness, that is turning the other cheek, Shaun! “Ignorant and contemptible” jibes usually reflect back on the uttered.

  4. 9 Alice Crampin March 26, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Just so indignant, that I failed to realise your tongue was in your cheek!

  5. 10 Andrew Needham March 31, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    It seems likely that after the election, whoever wins, there will be more pressure on GB.
    Page 9 of Countryside Voice, received today, starts the debate with points from the Adam Smith Institute – and the Guildford Greenbelt Group.

  1. 1 The National Trust and planning. Part One: the last hundred years | National Trust Places Trackback on April 12, 2016 at 10:28 am

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