Is the green belt sacred?

Written by NO: Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich. YES: Dr Tristram Hunt on 22 August 2008 in Opinion
No Political language is often misleading.

Political language is often misleading. Governments identify new ‘revenue streams' when they raise taxes and party leaders tend to call a colleague ‘courageous' when they think he has done something foolish. Another misleading term is ‘green belt'. That's what the government has called vast tracts of land outside our towns and cities that it has wanted to protect from development - as if they were full of birds, bugs and gentle hedgerows. In fact, however, they are often home to industrialised agriculture.

The ‘green belt' description has elevated imagination over reality in Britain's planning system. To the public, the areas it refers to seem to be much needed reserves of nature in an overcrowded, concrete Britain. They are, or at least they are believed to be, the last remnants of what was once England's green and pleasant land. To say anything against the concept of the green belt thus seems to smack of treachery.

But we need some hard-headed thought about why and how we protect land from the development we need. Perhaps it makes sense to tackle the biggest underlying myth first: the one that says land is a very scarce resource and that we are living on a densely populated island. How often have we heard such arguments in public debates about planning? Often enough, apparently, to convince the population that they must be true. In a survey, 54 per cent of the respondents said that at least half of England was developed with one in ten even estimating the proportion to be above 75 per cent.

These results indicate that most people probably haven't seen much of England recently. The Generalised Land Use Database shows that only 9.8 per cent of all land in England is developed, a figure that includes garden space in the cities. By contrast, 88 per cent of the land is green, and 2.2 per cent, the waterways and lakes, blue. Why is there such a gap between perception and reality? Perhaps because people have been told again and again that open land is disappearing. Maybe it is also true that most people spend most of their time in crowded cities and conclude that the rest of the country must be like that. But whatever the reason, England is a 90 per cent undeveloped country with no lack of open space.

Despite this, the public has long supported policies that limit development by protecting land. The green belt scheme was only the most eye-catching one. More than 1.6 million hectares in England (12.9 per cent of the land) are officially classified as green belt. This area alone is already larger than all developed space. But in addition, there are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks. In total, they account for 55.2 per cent of England's land. In other words, in more than half of England there are arrangements that make it very difficult to build the houses that this country desperately needs to accommodate its population - a population that is growing in size but living in smaller households.

In view of these statistics, it would make sense to lead the green belt debate in a less emotional tone. Nobody wants to concrete over all the nice green fields near our cities, an approach that would not even be necessary to accommodate our housing needs. To put the figures into perspective, even if England's urban areas were expanded by ten per cent, this could be achieved by only using less than one per cent of the total land mass. And it would still leave 89 per cent of the country untouched by development.

We should be having a more open discussion about which areas should be developed and how. This is the real debate that this country needs. Yet it should not be conducted as either for or against the green belt. Instead, we should talk about the decision-makers, i.e. whether the national government or local communities should decide where things go.

Local communities would be much better at weighing the pros and cons of development and come to more pragmatic and balanced decisions. It is local communities that know the housing demand in their areas best. They only have to ask their younger generations to find out how difficult it is for them to get on to the property ladder to immediately understand why some new houses are needed. But what local communities do not accept is being instructed what to build by a remote national government. This could also explain the widespread support for the green belt as well as the opposition to schemes such as the government's ‘eco-towns' (which are just another example of misleading political language).

The green belt thus has a future - but it should be a local one.

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is Chief Economist at Policy Exchange


Of course our green belt is sacred. If we have any concern for the British landscape, any belief in the divide between urban and rural, and if we are at all interested in encouraging vibrant cities and a flourishing countryside, then protection of the green belt is essential. The alternative is a car-dependent, exurban sprawl disfiguring our towns and villages, worsening climate change, leeching cities into wilderness, and doing nothing to bring down the cost of housing.

It is, perhaps, worth remembering why we have a green belt. It was the horrors of inter-war ribbon development that initially inspired the legislation. The 1920s and 30s witnessed a housing boom that irreversibly scarred the British landscape. In place of the dense cities of the Victorian era, there sprouted a mangled, sprawling suburbia. Funded first of all by the government's ‘homes for heroes' campaign - and then private developers buoyed up by strong demand - the interwar period saw four million houses go up, with 90% in newly developed or existing suburbs.

The British people made their way from vibrant cities to the low-density (averaging 12 to an acre), low-rise housing springing up between train stations, along arterial and country roads, and in vast housing estates situated well outside the urban centres. Britain was re-imagined as a suburban nation. "We plant trees in the town and bungalows in the country," complained the architect Clough Williams-Ellis, "thus averaging England out into a dull uneventfulness whereby one place becomes much the same as any other - all incentive to exploration being thus removed as the great network of smoothed-out concrete roads is completed."

Or consider JB Priestley's account of travelling out of London in 1933 along the Great Western road and confronting the endless, low-density exurbia of ribbon sprawl: "We might suddenly have rolled into California... This is the England of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, grey-hound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons."

But at the same time, there arose a remarkable surge of interest in countryside pursuits. Rural leisure was being democratised. Cycling, rambling, camping, even folk culture enjoyed an unprecedented vogue among the broad middle class. By the mid-1930s, some 100,000 men and women were regularly hiking across the British landscape.

It was a wish to preserve the natural heritage from the encircling suburbia that inspired planners to revive an idea initially devised by Ebenezer Howard for his Garden Cities. Central to Howard's vision of a self-sustaining city had been a ‘country belt' (or what designer Raymond Unwin first called a ‘green belt'), which carefully demarcated the edge of the city and allowed urban residents easy access to the countryside.

Given that images of England's bucolic countryside had formed such a central part of World War II home-front propaganda, politicians were adamant that post-war reconstruction should not take place at the expense of the rural environment. Green belts and New Towns were there to protect what we had fought for. Manchester should be distinct from Liverpool; Birmingham from Coventry. The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and then 1955 guidance on national green belts made that plain.

Today, the green belt faces its own fight. The last 30 years have witnessed a massive depopulation of British cities as hundreds of thousands have departed for suburbs, market towns and country villages. In the ten years to 2003, over two million people left London. In the 1960s, the population of Liverpool stood at over 700,000, it is now hovering around 440,000. All of which has placed incredible development pressures on rural-urban fringe communities.

Worse than that, though, we have the pusillanimity of politicians from both left and right who want to surrender a vital legislative part of what makes Britain unique: they want to sacrifice the green belt to allow a kind of anywhere-nowhere exurban sprawl. Rather than valuing tight cities, constrained suburbs and a clearly defined countryside, they somehow yearn for the monstrous, creeping megalopolises of Houston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. But ours is a small island with ever-diminishing space and where green belt land has been sacrificed - such as in the East Midlands - the results have done nothing for economic growth or home affordability.

So it beggars belief that at a time when there are more than 80,000 empty homes in London alone, when concerns about food supply and the need for agricultural security are becoming more urgent, when our cities are at last beginning to revive thanks to densification strategies and the link between suburban sprawl and car dependency is so obvious, that politicians and think-tankers should begin to consider sacrificing the green belt for greedy house builders. While there is absolutely no evidence (as the examples of Ireland and Australia have recently shown) that a marginal increase in house building has any substantive effect on price. It is interest rates and other fiscal levers that dictate house prices. But a green belt covered over with executive garages and identikit supermarkets is gone forever.

On 11th July 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons: "We will continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt." As a politician of trust, he needs to stick to his word.

Dr. Tristram Hunt is lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London.

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