Shredding the green belt is a recipe for disaster. We need a healthier planning policy

iis the green belt doomed? One of the great creations of post-war British planning – the concept of a national park within reach of every urban dweller – is fast losing friends. Besieged by centralist housing targets, which the Tories and their lobbyists argued over, it has now been undermined by Labour’s Keir Starmer. He wants to leave decisions about building in London’s green belt to local authorities. It’s not a good idea to let councilors decide whether a given meadow should be worth £1,000 or £1 million.

Greenbelts were invented to protect the adjacent countryside from the sprawl of suburbs in the interwar period, following the aspirations of Octavia Hill and other public health advocates. They were the envy of Europe. They embodied the idea of ​​the role of nature in the civilized city half a century before the green revolution. As a result, they cover about 12% of England and 22% of Greater London, half of which is open access.

Decades of British government policies that have sucked economic growth into the South East of England have put this country under great strain. Everyone can find a green belt occupied by parking lots, landfills or gloomy garbage. The result is that every rise in house prices has the development lobby calling for just one more field. Place a homeless family against a rural idyll and the game seems over – except the field never goes to the homeless.

Despite house prices falling and housing construction slumbering as a result, home ownership has once again reached a political peak. The fact is that about 60% of Britons own their own home, compared to about 50% of Germans, and about 50% of Londoners opposed about 30% of Parisians.

The reality is that demand for housing in booming cities is driven as much by the general economy as it is by new construction, which accounts for less than 10% of real estate sales. Currently, new construction in London barely compensates for the number of vacant properties, officially about 35,000, which is probably half of the actual total. The curse of London housing is the poor regulation of the existing housing stock, especially rents.

New residential area on the outskirts of Buxton in the Peak District.
New residential area on the outskirts of Buxton in the Peak District. Photo: Robert Morris/Alamy

Developers want greenfield sites. When Sajid Javid was community secretary in 2016, all he had to do was suggest that developers could “roam pretty much anywhere” in 60% of Britain’s countryside. At the same time, green belts were released “where appropriate”. Real estate lawyers had a field day.

The future of the green belt cannot lie in value judgments based on a building permit. It must lie in the value we attach to landscape and nature management in general. Therefore, like the cityscape, it should be regulated. We list beautiful buildings – even if that means fewer new houses are being built. We protect urban conservation areas. Few people regret permanent custody of the historic centers of Liverpool or Leeds, Norwich or Brighton, or much of central London. So why not give the historic landscapes around their outer edges the same protection?

Rural Britain outside of national parks is currently vulnerable to policy turmoil. Governments protect hills but pollute rivers, they guard trees but dump waste. One field may be of ‘scientific interest’, another is worth trying. All a builder has to do is find a farmer, make an offer and deploy lawyers for an underworld of councillors, planners, action groups, inspectors and judges. Rarely will landscape value be a problem.

Ask any developer what they need from local authorities and most will say sure. They want to know where to spend their efforts with minimal cost and delay. Outside of the UK’s 15 National Parks and 46 Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, there is no longer a boundary between urban and rural areas that created planning in the 1940s. There is no surveillance of positions, no clustering of settlements, no concern for local materials or local opinions. The organic growth of villages is being replaced by one of the four major developers with ‘volume housing’ encampments of 200-300 units. Travel on a train from Manchester to London and you’ll pass through a landscape that is randomly pockmarked with residential neighborhoods in toy towns. It looks awful.

We need to decide what of Britain’s countryside really needs to be protected for the conservation of scenic beauty, and what can be sacrificed and to what extent. We need to restore the protections granted to various types of farmland after the Land Use Act of 1947. We need to treat the countryside as we treat cities, to ‘list’ and rank what needs protection and what doesn’t.

A rural Domesday Book wouldn’t be the bureaucratic project it sounds like. Agricultural land is already registered for agricultural subsidy purposes. It would be for local authorities, in consultation with the local population, to assign degrees of protection, from grade 1 for national parks and lower grades to scenic and other value, up to the grade indicating clearance for development. Ironically, I’m sure this would provide more, not less, land for housing than the current chaos.

At this point, the green belt debate disappears. Belts that are of proper public utility would be listed forever. The rest could be released. But without such a list, any weakening of current protection must be counteracted. It’s that simple.