Posted by: Colin Wiles19/12/2011
If you’re at a loose end this Christmas can I recommend that you load up Google Earth and take a flight over southern and eastern England? What you see may surprise you. The myth says that we live in a built up and overcrowded island. The reality, especially in the east of England, is a vista of thousands of square miles of prairie-like fields with barely a settlement to be seen. The reason that England may sometimes feel overcrowded is because we are one of the most hemmed-in nations on earth, with 90 percent of us living on just 9 percent of England’s land area.
As a consequence, as Martin Durkin says, we “are stuffed into towns and cities like battery-farmed chickens.” The consequence of this stuffing is unaffordable property prices and a deepening housing crisis. If I had one cure for the housing crisis it would be, “It’s all about Land, stupid.”
One of the principal obstacles to sustainable housing growth are the 14 green belts that surround many of our towns and cities and comprise 13% of England’s area. They were set up with the best of intentions, to prevent sprawl, but in some places they are strangling the very cities they were designed to protect, leading to a massive imbalance between homes and jobs and causing thousands of people to “jump” the green belt every day, at huge cost to their nerves and the environment. In Cambridge where I live, 45 000 people have to commute across the green belt every day because they cannot afford to live in the city. Last week a house in my road, a modest Victorian terrace with a loft extension sold for almost half a million pounds. The consequence of this level of unaffordability is that many Cambridge colleges and high-tech firms are unable to recruit the right people, causing immense harm to the national economy. The green belts restrict development, push up land prices and have contributed to the UK having the smallest homes in Western Europe.
One of the aims of the green belts was to open up the countryside to recreation. In fact less than 2% of the green belt comprises accessible country parks. Much of the green belt is devoted to intensive farming with no amenity value or public access. As an example, take a drive along the M25 clockwise from Heathrow to Dartford. Is there any reason why London should not expand up to the M25 along much of this stretch of motorway, with green lungs to allow access beyond the city? But the green belts have also caused the loss of amenity land within the cities they were meant to protect. The brownfield first policy means that derelict sites within the city are almost always built upon rather than turned into parks and open spaces. The Borough of Islington, for example, contains almost no open space. If the green belts in London, Oxford and Cambridge were rolled back, perhaps replaced pro-rata with land beyond their present boundaries, it would allow more open spaces to be created within the cities and for sustainable development to take place.
The green belt is a 1930s concept that is no longer fit for purpose. Interestingly, one of the planners behind the green belt concept was Sir Patrick Abercrombie who also founded the CPRE in 1926, now, along with the National Trust, one of the most virulent campaigners against the much-needed planning reforms set out in the National Planning Policy Framework. As Martin Durkin argues, the green belts were essentially an act of class war, a conspiracy of the intellectuals and land owning aristocracy to prevent the stinking lower orders from spreading beyond the confines of the city. The countryside campaigners who oppose the NPPF are essentially part of this same tradition. It’s time for a re-think on the green belt.
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles