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“Simon says” – How green is your belt?

November 30, 2016

view-to-poole-from-upton-heath-mark-heighesIf the broadsheet newspapers are to be believed recently, England is heading towards an era of urban sprawl and environmental degradation as developers get access to sacrosanct green belt land.  The Telegraph talked last month about 300,000 new homes in 14 green belts, and The Times last week revealed that Ministers had been urged to support building on green belt to ease the ‘housing crisis’.

Green belt – what it is and what it isn’t

As environmentalists it is obvious that we should be opposing this development isn’t it?  Well actually I don’t believe it is as simple as that.  First of all green belts are not just nature conservation designations.  They are a development planning restriction.  They aren’t a new concept either.  In his review of green belts for Dorset’s Local Nature Partnership (http://www.dorsetlnp.org.uk/hres/green-belt-report.pdf), Simon Williams described the history of the concept which goes way back to 1580 when Queen Elizabeth established a three-mile cordon sanitaire around London.

It wasn’t until 1947 and eventually 1955 that it became enshrined in our modern laws.  Not to protect landscape or nature, but ‘to provide a girdle of open space around major conurbations’.  The concept does not define the quality of the land to be protected, merely a line on a map outside which development should not normally occur.  Green belt is specified land around the country’s major conurbations, not just open countryside, and not around towns and villages as is sometimes thought.

What do we want green belt to be?

Probably few would doubt the continued value of preventing urban sprawl.  How would our country look and feel if it was one long suburban sprawl from London to Liverpool, as it is around Tokyo?  You may have a different view, but I for one would prefer to live where there was a marked contrast between town and country, not a bland indistinguishable blend of the two.

It has been a criticism of green belt that it primarily benefits the more wealthy who can afford to live there – look at the New Forest for example.  Green belt can though be a huge benefit to urban residents if there is adequate access and it is of good enough quality.  DWT’s own Great Heath project is an example of this.  Heritage Lottery Fund supported the project because of the access it gave to communities around the conurbations of Poole and Bournemouth.

Currently the quality of green belt land on the urban fringe can include anything from internationally important heathlands to a pretty tatty mix of football pitches, pony paddocks and monoculture agriculture.  Nothing wrong with the latter three in the right place, but I think it is a wasted opportunity not to engage communities and get a wide range of people out on high quality green-space in the vicinity of where they live.  Look how popular Moors Valley, Brownsea Island, Upton Heath and Badbury Rings are.  All close to the conurbation in Dorset.

In these days of kids becoming increasingly isolated from nature, the population becoming more obese, and increases in mental ill health and fitness related illnesses, we need more natural places for people to exercise or relax and to recharge our batteries.  Green belt can do that, but not used as it is today, i.e. purely as open land to separate towns.

A green belt for people and nature

So let’s then think about how green belts could be better set up and used so that they benefit modern-day communities, not just for a single use.  That requires that we give up the concept of green belt as sacrosanct.  Easy for us, but much harder for councillors and some MPs who have been elected on a ticket of defending green belt to the death.

The first thing to ensure is that the size and connectivity of the green belt is not eroded – it is not just the green part of green belt that is important but also the belt.  Government has talked about a land-swap, though CPRE has concerns as they say it is far easier to get land for development than to set aside land as green belt.  I like the idea of land-swap because it retains the size and connectivity of the green belt, but admits that the exact location of the 1955 designations may not be as relevant today.

Developer pays

Securing land for public use, dedicated to local authorities or environmental organisations, and for funding improvements to the quality of green space is hard to come by these days.  Improvements to access, bike paths, restoring habitats, interpretation, land management, fencing, etc., all cost money both in the initial set-up and ongoing management.  If people are to use the land and enjoy nature, the quality of the experience often has to be improved over what is currently on offer within our green belts.  Who is going to pay for this?  This is where developer contributions come in, in the form of a green belt levy, mitigation costs, or more formal overarching section 106 agreements (legal planning obligations).  This funding must though be used for nature and environment and not just siphoned into other levies for example for new roundabouts and bridges.  There needs to be a net gain for the natural environment.  Simply opposing development at all costs will not generate the benefits that have the potential to improve quality of life, health and wellbeing.

So in summary, my personal view is that in certain, controlled circumstances development on green belt land can be a good thing for the environment and for communities, but we must ensure that the amount of green belt land does not decrease and the quality of the land in terms of nature and amenity increases – paid for by the development itself.  We may not be able to stop progress, but we can certainly make it a force for good.  What do you think?

By DWT Chief Executive, Simon Cripps

Photo: View to Poole from Upton Heath © Mark Heighes

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