“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”
William Blake, 1799
The forthcoming Housing White Paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government is expected to tackle the thorny issue of the Green Belt. Initially due for publication at the end of 2016, the paper has now been delayed twice, heightening speculation about its contents.
The Telegraph has suggested that councils are likely to be encouraged to make greater use of the controversial policy of ‘green belt swaps’. Green Belt swaps allow councils to remove protections on one part of green belt in return for creating a new area of protected land elsewhere. This may enable councils to better meet demand for housing. Current planning legislation for Green Belt swaps already exists, but often fails to work in practice. Proposals are often rejected at the planning stage due to the newly identified land failing to meet Green Belt definitions. The Times indicates that the White Paper may contain a more aggressive approach towards the use of the Green Belt for housing.
There is no denying the need for more housing. In general, experts agree that a minimum of 200,000 new homes will be needed each year in order to keep up with demand.
Recent government statistics on Green Belt in England in 2015/16 estimated that it covered around 13% of the land area of England. It has been argued that development on just 1% of reclassified Green Belt would allow for almost half a million new homes to be built. However, building upon the Green Belt provokes much passionate debate.
Proponents of green belt flexibility argue that:
- it would enable more homes to be built where affordability is lowest and demand is highest;
- the Green Belt is crudely defined and includes many areas of low quality land in the same category as land with high environmental value;
- in many cities, brownfield sites are not in the best locations for new homes, are better used for other local priorities, or are owned by those unwilling to sell;
- many of Britain’s least affordable cities do not have enough brownfield land that is suitable for housing, to meet their needs; and
- in some successful cities housing development is leapfrogging the Green Belt rather than being contained, causing sprawl.
Paul Cheshire, Professor Emeritus of Economic Geography, LSE, argues that many opponents of building on the Green Belt hold a romanticised image of the nature of the land, which is not truly representative of the majority of Green Belt land.
“Of course parts of the Green Belts are real environmental and amenity treasures, such as the beautiful bits of rolling Hertfordshire, the Chilterns or the North Downs. Or rather, the beautiful bits to which there is public access. Such areas really need to be preserved against development. But almost all Green Belt land is privately owned, so the only access is if there are viable public rights of way.”
He goes on to suggest selective building on the least attractive parts of Green Belts, which are close to cities where people want to live.
A similar sentiment is found in the recent LSE report ‘A 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt’. Dr Alan Mace, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Studies at LSE (one of the authors of the report) concludes that:
“People often look at the Green Belt and say, ‘who would want to lose this?’ but often they’re looking at land that is protected in other ways, such as Metropolitan Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and this would not change. Some parts of the Green Belt are neither aesthetically pleasing nor environmentally valuable and these are the areas that should be looked at for potential development.”
However, Green Belt swaps are not without potential problems. For example, Shelter has cautioned that Green Belt flexibility “could create a mini industry in speculative land trading in Green Belt areas, making cheap land release much harder as landowners hold out for high prices”.
There is also much opposition to building on the Green Belt among the general public and environmental groups. Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at CPRE, is concerned that the Green Belt is being chipped away, arguing that, among its benefits, the Green Belt:
“…continues to provide impetus for urban regeneration, and makes environmental and economic sense in protecting the breathing space around our towns and cities.”
Perhaps Rowan Moore, writing in the Guardian, neatly describes the desire of many to protect the Green Belt when he states “The fact that it is named in the singular, although there are many green belts, indicates its status as an idea, even an ideal, as well as a place. It is part of English, if not British, national identity, protected by the shade of William Blake”.
The government has remained tight-lipped on the contents of the White Paper, but if they do choose to include Green Belt swaps as a key feature of the paper, they will face an uphill battle in tackling public perception and reassuring environmental and conservation groups.
Reconciling these differences of opinion will not be easy. Ensuring that there is no overall loss in the total land area and overall quality of the Green Belt will no doubt be a key step towards addressing this.
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