Brace yourself for green belt battles

‘Til we have built JerusalemIn England’s green and pleasant land

The battlelines are being drawn up, the weapons of choice hard-hats, architects’ plans, planning directives and bulldozers.

Sir Kier Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, is putting part of his push to be our next Prime Minister onto the side of those who require more homes to be built. He’s ‘on the side of the builders not the blockers’. He plans to use some of the green belt ‘where appropriate’ to provide some of the country’s much needed homes. On the other side is the current incumbent of Number 10 Downing Street, Rishi Sunak, who has pledged to protect the green belt from development, moving away from housing targets despite the crisis in affordable housing.

The green belt is a really emotive topic for many people. It brings to mind a protective circle of green fields, sunlit uplands, daisy-strewn downs, streams tricking through dappled woodlands, home to badgers and foxes, birds and bees, orchids and oaks. To many people, the term green belt is a bucolic collection of picture postcard villages, where old-timers sup ale outside the local pub, dogs and children gambol freely on the green, the postman still delivers mail, and nothing much ever happens, unless the village name happens to have the word Midsomer in it.

What it actually is, is a policy for controlling urban growth, for preventing development on the outskirts of say, London, reaching as far as Stevenage or Sevenoaks. Coined by Octavia Hill, the lady behind the National Trust, it means a ring of countryside where the priority will be farming, forestry and outdoor leisure. The policy has long been criticised for reducing the amount of land available for building and therefore, as is the way of markets run along supply-and-demand curves,  pushing up house prices.

Green space is important. It’s really, really important. It’s vital to the health and well-being, not just of the populace, but of the environment, of the land itself. Trees, fields, flowers, woodlands, rivers (don’t get me started on that one again): all essential ingredients in the recipe for our future as a species.

I’m the first one to complain about developers wanting to run roughshod over the countryside. That’s not what this is about. Starmer’s point is that not everything that is characterised as green belt by councils, is actually worth letting lie fallow. The disused petrol station at the end of the high street, the long-closed pub, the old, abandoned collection of warehouses are also classified as being in the green belt, depending where they are. If you drill into it, there are five stated purposes of including land within the green belt:

  • To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas
  • To prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another
  • To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment
  • To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns
  • To assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

It’s this last one which is most important. Regeneration isn’t just something that happens within cities and major towns. Rural poverty and deprivation is a thing. There are plenty of places outside of cities and towns which themselves require regeneration, re-peopling, if you like.

One of the downsides of planning’s rigid adherence to the concept of a green belt, is that development still happens, but it happens on the others sides, increasing pressure on urban density, and forcing people into longer and longer commutes.

We need more houses building in this country. We need them building in the right places, where there is infrastructure, where there are jobs for people to aspire to, schools for their children to attend and some form of transport to allow them to get about, We need them to be affordable.

The need for space to just be space has to be considered alongside the need for it to be used.



About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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