In defence of the Green Belt on its 60th anniversary

The Green Belt is extraordinarily popular both with the general public and with politicians. Two-thirds of the general public say it should not be developed and in the recent general election politicians of all parties, from the Prime Minister down, queued up to say how much they love it and want to protect it.

So, what is the problem? Why does CPRE feel it necessary to launch a big campaign on the 60th anniversary of the introduction of the Green Belt as a national planning policy?

There are two reasons. First, in spite of all the support for the Green Belt, real and rhetorical, it is being steadily eroded, particularly by new housing. Second, as any reader of newspapers and magazines such as the Times, Financial Times or Economist will know, opponents of the Green Belt are growing in influence.

On the practical threat, some 226,000 homes are planned for Green Belt land. Planning policy states that inappropriate development should only take place within the Green Belt in ‘very special circumstances’ and its boundaries should only be redrawn in ‘exceptional circumstances’. But these tests are not being properly applied and the Government is not acting firmly enough to enforce national Green Belt policy. It cannot hide behind localism when national policy is flouted – and it certainly should not do so while claiming that it is fully supportive of the Green Belt.

The intellectual assault on the Green Belt is not the cause of current Green Belt loss, but it undermines confidence in the policy and threatens it in the longer term. Once largely confined to a few ultra free market think-tank who hate planning (‘leave it to the invisible hand of the market’) and therefore predictably hate the best loved planning policy, the well-funded and clever men pumping out anti-Green Belt propaganda are beginning to win more influence.

The argument from newspaper commentators is often pretty crude. We need more homes (true); most towns and cities with the highest demand for new housing have Green Belts (true); not enough homes are being built on available brownfield land in these places (true); we therefore we need to release Green Belt land to get the housing we need (a whopping non sequitur).

A classic example appeared in last month’s Economist, highlighted by the blogger Andrew Lainton. It rehearses problems with London’s property market (high house prices, long commutes) and concludes, with a leap of logic: “Few politicians want to bulldoze the green belt. But if housing supply is to increase, and with it productivity, that may have to change.” Precisely no evidence is produced that releasing Green Belt land would be likely to result in more homes or shorter commutes.

Commentators fixate on the Green Belt, but they ignore the big question of who is going to build the homes the country needs. Not the state, which used to build more than half of them; those days look unlikely to come again, thanks partly to the influence of the free market think-tanks now bemoaning the under-supply of housing. Nor will the homes be built by the small builders who used to account for two-thirds of private sector production; their market share is now less than a third, and falling.

Nor will the big builders, the dozen firms who dominate the market. They are clear that they have no intention of massively increasing supply. Why should they? They are highly profitable in the current market, and the last time they significantly increased output they got badly burned in the crash that followed. Even if they wanted to increase supply significantly, they could not do so because of a shortage of skills and supplies, as the boss of Taylor Wimpey said on the Today programme on 29 July.

It is not that there are no possible solutions to the inability of current providers of new housing to build on the scale that most commentators now say we need (200,000 houses a year or more). There clearly are, and CPRE has proposed a few, particularly with regard to reviving the small and medium-sized house building sector. But until the first order question of getting houses built is addressed, the question of building in the Green Belt is at best a sideshow and at worst and ideologically motivated attempt to undermine the planning system.

And we will pay a high price if we undermine the Green Belt. CPRE’s Our Green Belt campaign will capture people’s memories of the Green Belt, and demonstrate why it is not just a planning designation – important though that is – but an important part of people’s lives.

Of course, not all Green Belt land is beautiful, accessible or rich in wildlife. Sometimes, particularly on the urban fringe, it is none of these things. But the idea that poor quality is a justification developing Green Belt land is addressed in CPRE’s new Green Belt ‘myth buster’. (I wanted to call this Pestilential Nonsense Unmasked or Nonsense on Stilts, after Jeremy Bentham, but seem to have been overruled). It is also an argument addressed in one of the best recent defences of the Green Belt, Dieter Helm’s paper In Defence of the Green Belt. Prof. Helm argues that it is too assumed that there are only two alternatives for Green Belt land, the status quo or building on it. The third alternative, of course, is improving it.

Not all arguments for revising individual Green Belt boundaries are ‘nonsense’ – over the years a number of CPRE branches have supported Green Belt boundary changes where ‘exceptional circumstances’ have been established. And there is clearly scope for a debate about the proper role of the Green Belt over the next 60 years. CPRE is up for that. We are also very aware that Green Belts cover only 13% of the land area of England, and that a good deal of ‘ordinary’, undesignated countryside is also being lost or degraded unnecessarily.

But the big story on the 60th anniversary of the Green Belt is that it has been a huge success, without which this country would be immeasurably poorer. We should celebrate the Green Belt, and protect it.

2 Responses to “In defence of the Green Belt on its 60th anniversary”

  1. 1 Andrew Carey August 3, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    “the number of those supporting Green Belt protection appears to have fallen since 2005”
    That’s not my quote. It comes from the CPRE. The direction of opinion is obvious. Sadly the survey questions for 2015 were not more nuanced. If the public were asked if they support selective building on Green Belt land, for example on previously intensively farmed land within 10 minutes of public transport, then the poll results would have been very interesting indeed. If th e survey had said this would mean reclassifying only around 1/20th of the green belt, it would have been even more interesting.

    Missing from this analysis though is the Barker report 2004 table which shows that the UK public value urban parkland over 50 times more than intensively farmed land whether it is in the green belt or not.

    For now Shaun, keep supporting thoser 85 GBP an acre subsidies which make us fatter and poorer until the next survey in 10 years time when no doubt rental costs will be the highest in the EU and people in Islington with no savings but on 48k a year get a housing benefit cheque from the taxpayer. Err, hang on, those last two observations are already true.

  2. 2 Andrew Needham August 4, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    There seems to be a revival in the concept of Green Belt swaps:-

    A Number 10 source described Sir Andrew’s concerns as unfounded, saying: “Protecting the Green Belt is a manifesto pledge and we will stick to it. If local councils want to build on Green Belt land they must designate other areas as Green Belt. There will always be parity. The Green Belt is safe under this Government.”

    Housing Minister Brandon Lewis added: “We have put strong protections in place for the Green Belt, which mean that there were 34,000 more hectares in the Green Belt in 2013/14 than in 1997.”

    This would mean that an evaluation should assess the extent to which both existing and potential Green Belt land fulfils the five purposes of Green Belt:-

    • Major Contribution – contributes to the purpose in a strong and undeniable way, where removal of this parcel from the Green Belt would detrimentally undermine this purpose.
    • Significant Contribution – contributes to the majority of the purpose but does not fulfil all elements.
    • Contribution – makes a limited degree of contribution to the purpose, as some relationship has been identified between the parcel and the purpose.
    • No Contribution – makes no contribution to the Green Belt purpose.

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