Paul Cheshire of the London School of Economics came to HTA last month and presented his thoughts on Building on the Green Belt. It was at once appalling and fascinating. I think it is worthwhile to explore ideas that are superficially appalling to analyse why they affect us in this way and whether our sensitivity to them is real or something we have learned without really absorbing the rationale behind it. The history of civilisation is full of bad ideas that were once held to be good ideas but which we now find appalling. By we, I largely mean Western civilisation. By bad ideas I mean racism, fascism, UKIP, factory farming…those sorts of ideas. What seems obvious to one generation can often appal the next one. Think about 70’s fashion!
Building on the Green Belt(BoGB) has come to attract the same strong reactions as some of those ideas above, whether one is for or against, there is no real middle ground. The cause against BoGB is is largely emotional and visceral, its ‘green’ land, the reasoning goes, so it must be nice, its surely full of woodland and trees, it harbours the last vestige of medieval connectivity with the ‘land’ that feeds us. We will all choke to death on the fumes of cars and buildings if we allow this to continue, etc., etc.,We are carpeting over England’s green and pleasant land and we mustn’t allow it to continue, or even think about allowing it to continue. Is any of this true?
The problem with all of this is that there is enough truth in it to make it believable to the average voter, and therefore completely toxic to our current crop of rather spineless politicians. Were BoGB to happen it will inevitably destroy some areas of land that have some ecological value, and will inevitably carpet over some of the ‘green and pleasant’ land. But the argument is more complex than this. By not BoGB we are curtailing the supply of land for housing in a way that was not envisaged when the legislation was enacted. We are in a period of chronic under-supply of homes and young people have little chance of getting an affordable home to live in unless we act to increase supply. London in particular is being constrained to the point where housing ownership is becoming impossible for young people on a normal wage.
To change the housing market we need to be building many more homes that we are currently building, this appears to be generally accepted. Some of these can be delivered in dense new apartment developments close to jobs in city centres. But high density development is slow to bring through the planning system and often controversial. On its own it won’t be enough.
I dislike the idea of BoGB as much, and possibly more than most, I prefer to design dense environments for people to live in, as I believe that high density living brings with it high-quality services. If I had my way we would all live in terraces or apartments and the suburban semi would be banned. Fortunately there are a lot of people who disagree with me and who want to live in the suburbs in a semi and they should have what they want. Shouldn’t they? Is owning an environmentally damaging house with four cars and garden in the suburbs an ‘inalienable human right’ or should it be classified as something that previous generations longed for and could afford, but which we cannot? Do we recognise that the costs of allowing everyone to own their own patch of grass two hours commute from where they work is neither good for them nor good for society as a whole?
To look at the figures dispassionately, 13% of land in the UK is Green Belt land. Audacity.org have produced a nice map illustrating the many designations of land used in England to prevent development. Their research demonstrates that we have built on approximately 10% of our land, leaving the remaining 90%, much of which is unavailable for development. The illustration of Green Belts around the main population centres demonstrates that they are doing their job of curtailing the growth of those centres, and putting pressure on nearby smaller towns to grow instead.
Unfortunately this land use planning strategy is not matched by an economic strategy that is helping to create jobs in those smaller towns. The result is a working population in the cities that must commute long distances to work and puts increasing pressure on the transport system. See here for statistics showing that a decade ago about one third of London’s working population commuted into London. One of the results of this has been the construction of more roads through the Green Belt, which has further degraded it, on top of the highly industrialised agriculture practised in most of the Green Belt which has denuded it of trees and wildlife. It may be green in colour, but much of it is grey in environmental terms, ecologically poor, with sparse areas of ecology poisoned by pesticides and curtailed by the machinery of the supermarket supply chain. Is it really worth protecting? Are we being realistic by calling it the Green Belt? Are we using the right yardstick to measure it against? Should we call it an Environmental Zone or Green Zone instead.
The decades-old principle of home ownership will soon be at an end unless these conflicting strategies are resolved. Land use designations including the Green Belt have become an inconvenient sacred cow that is preventing our cities from expanding. Growth is being pushed out to smaller dormitory towns, and pushing up the price of land outside the Green Belts to levels where starter homes require subsidy to be affordable. The policies discussed in the recent round of conferences include subsidies for first time buyers is a direct result of a set of planning policies that limit the opportunities for development.
I suspect that the Green Belt could be made smaller, more environmentally beneficial, and much more meaningful in real terms by being ‘masterplanned’ and ‘activated’ more thoroughly. The reality is that most Green Belt land currently performs little useful function other than to curtail development. Given that our wildlife population continues to plummet, we cannot argue that Green Belts have fulfilled a function of protecting wildlife. To live up to its designation Green Belts need to be transformed into places where nature can thrive and also be enjoyed by the urban population they are intended to support. A series of Environmental Zones surrounding our cities which contain leisure activities as well as a proportion of responsible farming, new woodlands, wind turbines, biodiverse places rich in ecology and protected by future generations and bounded by dense high quality homes seems to me to engender the best of both worlds. The costs of these changes would be borne by the sale of a proportion of the land for new housing.
Since many of these areas are already well-served by public transport little new infrastructure would be needed. The existing infrastructure is currently under-used as these outlying areas have not been able to expand since the transport network was installed decades ago. By creating jobs in these locations we would also reduce the need for expansion in the transport network and balance the current concentration of jobs in the centres of our cities with a new set of suburban desirable locations for people to live and work. The Green Belt was a good idea and it has left us a legacy of potential that we can use, but on its own it is not enough to guarantee a positive future for our major cities.