Our Green Belt policy deserves more than the knee-jerk “preserve at all costs” reaction the government has to any suggestion of reform. let’s be more rational, and more realistic
Why can’t we talk more rationally about the Green Belt? For Tory politicians terrified of knee-jerk reactions from Daily Telegraph readers, it is a toxic subject. Take housing minister Brandon Lewis’ reaction to Urbed’s winning essay for the 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize. In response to the question, “How would you deliver a garden city which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?” Urbed suggested taking bite-sized chunks out of the Green Belt, to which the minister spluttered: “The Government is committed to protecting the Green Belt from development as an important protection against urban sprawl.” His conclusion was that the Wolfson ideas “will not be taken up”.
Urbed’s ideas are not unprecedented. Local authorities already have the power to de-designate Green Belt land in their local plan where there is a clear housing need, and boroughs around London are looking at taking lots of little bites in piecemeal fashion.
Green Belt, a key planning legacy of the last century deserves better. The concept was promoted in the early days by The London Society, which recently published a White Paper on the subject (available from www.londonsociety.org.uk/blog/) in which planner Jonathan Manns argues that we should remind ourselves what the Green Belt was first designed for in order to think logically about its future. David Barclay Niven, one of the founder members of The London Society, writing in the Architectural Review in 1910, proposed an “outer park system, or continuous garden city right round London, [that] would be a healthful zone of pleasure, civic interest, and enlightenment”.
In 1919 this was included in the Society’s Development Plan of Greater London, the first plan of its kind.A quarter of a century later, Patrick Abercrombie presented his own Greater London Plan to the Society where he stressed the balanced content of the plan, and the need to “preserve a large amount of country as near to the town as possible not only for the sake of recreation but for the purpose of obtaining fresh food rapidly”.
This created an ambiguity between the domestic, recreational and agricultural purposes of the Green Belt, resulting in a tension that has often obscured the historically accepted recognition of land for both development and urban containment. A situation compounded by the then-Ministry of Housing and local government, which said that the reasons for designating Green Belt were to check the growth of a large built-up area and to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another, adding an extra section about preserving the special character of a town.
The 2012 National Planning Policy Framework suggests “the fundamental aim of the Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.” Then in 2014, Boris Johnson’s draft London Infrastructure Plan 2050 raised the issue of “the role that new towns and urban extensions can play in areas beyond the Green Belt” and identified “major growth potential” on land north of London, leaping over the Green Belt – with the consequence of hugely increased commuter journeys.
The story of the Green Belt suggests a flexible concept that has evolved and responded to the opportunities and challenges of history. Today we have a fixed entity, which our decision-makers fear to discuss, with places of beauty that deserve protection as well as plenty of grotty bits. As Manns suggests, it is time for a more rational analysis.