The two best fights to watch in Westminster this autumn will be about land: the shape of constituencies, and where developers will be allowed to build the new homes that ministers are increasingly seeing as the best solution to Britain’s growth problem. Tim Shipman reports in the Daily Mail today that the Quad is ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and considering relaxing rules around building on the green belt as part of those planning reforms that Eric Pickles and colleagues are dreading.
Cue outrage and news reports featuring photographs of beautiful rolling green meadows. Sources in the Communities and Local Government say they do not recognise the Mail’s report.
But why is the green belt so sacred? It is not the same thing as those gorgeous chalk grasslands protected as areas of outstanding natural beauty, or the flora and fauna-rich nature reserves that developers will never get their hands on. Research by Policy Exchange points out that around 60 per cent of the green belt is actually devoted to intensive farming. The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that the green belt exists not to safeguard the lovely green English countryside, but to prevent urban encroachment. The quality of the landscape is not actually relevant to whether land is included within a green belt.
Instead, the belt stops cities breathing outwards. Research, again from Policy Exchange’s excellent Cities for Growth report, shows London has lost the equivalent of 22 Hyde Parks of front gardens. Campaigners who want to protect farmland on the green belt would rather gardens in cities – which are often havens for urban wildlife and act as the ‘lungs’ of developed areas – were built on instead. The continuing row about the sell-off of school playing fields plays into this, too.
The trouble is that the words ‘green belt’ hold greater emotional sway than they deserve, particularly with the Conservatives’ core voters. This would be another unpopular policy that MPs would struggle to sell to their constituents, and they could wisely refuse to do so, given the number of policies they have defended which have then been reversed . Ministers may well find that threatening the loyalty of their voters is more unthinkable than the benefits of green belt development.
UPDATE, 3pm: Communities minister Andrew Stunell has issued this statement:
‘The green belt provides an important protection against urban sprawl, providing a ‘green lung’ around towns and cities. The coalition agreement commits the government to safeguarding green belt and other environmental designations, which they have been in the new National Planning Police Framework.’Tags: Growth, Planning, The Quad, UK politics