Of Green Belts, green fields, and open land

Green Belts and green field sites are not the same, though they are often confused either accidentally or deliberately.

Green Belts are designated as such by statute and are protected from development. About fourteen per cent of England is designated as Green Belt, more than the proportion that is urban.

A further large proportion of the land area is designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Specific Scientific Interest or National Parks and similarly protected. Within urban areas some open land may also be protected.

Within London large tracts of undeveloped land are designated as Metropolitan Open Land. About half of the land area is therefore neither urban nor covered by any statutory protection. Green field sites could lie within a Green Belt but most, it is obvious, do not. Nevertheless, it is easy to confuse the two.

Sometimes this confusion is accidental, and sometimes it is deliberate. Certainly, because Green Belts are regarded by the general public as sacrosanct, any suggestion that building might be permitted on green field sites may be cried up as 'Green Belts threatened'. Conversely, when Margaret Ford, the chairman of English Partnerships, the Government's regeneration agency, was asked recently if she was 'concreting over the countryside' she replied: "I can honestly say that . . . we're only building on brown field land . . . or on sites . . . that have been zoned for development for many years. There's not a single part of the country where we're building on Green Belt land". Her answer is absolutely correct, but it does invite the unwary reader to read "green field" where she says "Green Belt". Certainly surveys suggest confusion in the public mind.

The survey Public views of development options in the South East, financed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found that people were more favourable to development on open land than on green field sites, and the authors suggested that this might be because people confused 'green field' with 'Green Belt'.

It is therefore necessary for us to be clear and specific. Nothing that we have said in our reports has threatened Green Belts. But we argued at the beginning of this paper that the aims and objectives of the founders of British town planning had become either neglected or distorted, and that is certainly true with respect to Green Belts, and the London Green Belt in particular.

So it would be remiss of us not to point out what has happened. The original idea put forward in Abercrombie's plan for Greater London was that a Green Belt should be a fairly narrow strip of land which would primarily provide open space and recreational land for the residents of the city it surrounded.37 But when Green belts came to be enacted they were seen by the shire counties adjoining the urban areas that a Green Belt could be used, not as a resource for the residents of the nearby urban area, but as a barrier against intrusion into these more rural counties by the urban residents.

To achieve this the idea of providing for recreational facilities was dropped and the Green Belts considerably widened. So, in relation to London, the area of the Green Belt is substantially greater than that of the urban area. The conversion of 'a sports jacket into a straitjacket' had two effects.

As we know, land in the urban area became more expensive and it became both difficult and costly to provide the recreational facilities within the urban areas, as had originally been planned. So, as Stephen Inwood bitterly concludes in his review of the history of the post war Green Belt, the end result for Londoners was that "children playing on London's increasingly busy streets, and without most of the local parks that Abercrombie had promised, could console themselves with the thought that ten or fifteen miles away there was a belt of agricultural land that they would never be allowed to spoil". Another consequence of the Green Belt has been longer journeys to work. As rising house prices within contained urban areas have pushed workers out beyond the Green Belt, commutes have lengthened and car use increased.

Were the current planning system seriously concerned to reduce fuel use and car use, as is often claimed, some reconsideration of the role of Green Belts would certainly be in order. And since the planning system is not primarily geared towards sustainability in its consideration of the role of the Green Belt, we have to assume that the concern over densification, although portrayed as being about sustainability, is actually poorly thought through political posturing.

There has been political pressure to build dwellings within existing urban areas on so-called brown field sites. The arguments used to promote this are, as we showed in Unaffordable Housing, simplistic at best and sometimes downright wrong. For example, a simple intuitive view would be that building houses on former agricultural land would reduce biodiversity. In fact the empirical evidence shows that the reverse is true. Biodiversity is greater in low density housing developments, with their gardens and verges, as species settle in and accommodate themselves to the changed ecology. Moreover, so-called brown field sites are often very green. They include playing fields and allotments, as well as the gardens of existing houses. The densification of urban settlements, although supposedly based on the recycling of brown land, has actually resulted in the 'greenness' of the urban environment being reduced and its 'brownness' increased. Yet the evidence shows, not surprisingly, that people value open space within urban areas more than they do open space outside towns. The current system seeks, paradoxically, to destroy the former to save the latter. Better Homes, Greener Cities Over the past 50 years town planning has lost sight of its original objectives, those of providing decent homes and a decent living environment for the people of Britain. Particular groups have been able to get policies favourable to themselves adopted because the economic costs they impose on others have not been seen. So, as we have just said, Green Belts - which were intended to be relatively narrow and primarily used for recreation - were put in place and expanded in width, but continued to be used for farming. The shire counties used Green Belts to hold back the influence of the nearby city. The recreational uses disappeared and the Green Belts became green blankets - or more accurately green barriers - designed to keep urban inhabitants from spoiling the lives of those living in the countryside.

And often they were not even very green, i.e. not places of 'unspoilt' nature but of industrialised and intensive agriculture. Development came to be increasingly restricted, so that everywhere controls were imposed to prevent what was labeled 'urban sprawl' - a settlement pattern that we now know provides the best foundations for an environmentally friendly and healthy lifestyle. In consequence land prices rose, and house prices too, as demand increased but the supply of land did not. The increase certainly gratified existing house owners, but they failed to realise that what they were getting for their money, as generation succeeded generation, was both more expensive and smaller. So, in the end, Britons found themselves with the smallest, oldest and most expensive new homes in Western Europe.

In our report we have shown that there are ways to improve this situation. We believe that it is possible for Britons to enjoy stable house prices, affordable accommodation, green cities and modern, spacious houses - very much like their neighbours on the continent.

Jul 06

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