Shredding the green belt is a recipe for disaster. We need a saner planning policy | Simon Jenkins – best news


Is the green belt doomed? One of the great creations of postwar British planning – the concept of a national park within reach of every city-dweller – is fast losing friends. Under siege from centralist housing targets, argued between Tories and their lobbyists, it has now been undermined by Labour’s Keir Starmer. He wants to leave decisions on building in London’s green belt to local councils. Leaving councillors to decide on the nod if a particular meadow should be worth £1,000 or £1m is not a good idea.

Green belts were invented to protect adjacent countryside from the sprawl of interwar suburbs, after the ambitions of Octavia Hill and other champions of public health. They were the envy of Europe. They embodied the idea of the role of nature in the civilised city half a century before the green revolution. As a result, they cover about 12% of England, and 22% of Greater London, of which half is open access.

Decades of British government policy sucking economic growth into the south-east of England has placed this land under intense pressure. Everyone can find a green belt occupied by car parks, rubbish dumps or dreary waste. The result is that every rise in house prices has the development lobby pleading for just one more field. Pit a homeless family against a rural idyll and the game seems over – except that the field never goes to homeless people.

Despite the fact that house prices are falling and housebuilding, as a result, is dormant, home ownership has hit another political high. The fact is that about 60% of Britons own their own homes, against about 50% of Germans, and roughly 50% of Londoners against about 30% of Parisians.

The reality is that housing demand in booming cities is conditioned as much by the overall economy as by new building, which meets less than 10% of property sales. Currently, new building in London barely compensates for the number of properties lying vacant, officially around 35,000, which is probably half the true total. The curse of London housing is the poor regulation of the existing housing stock, especially rents.

New housing estate on the outskirts of Buxton in the Peak District. Photograph: Robert Morris/Alamy

Developers want greenfield sites. When Sajid Javid was communities secretary in 2016, he had only to suggest that developers could “pretty well roam everywhere” across 60% of rural Britain. At the same time, green belts were released “where appropriate”. Property lawyers had a field day.

The future of the green belt cannot lie in value judgments made on the spur of a planning application. It must lie in the value we place on overall countryside and nature conservation. That is why it should be regulated as is townscape. We list beautiful buildings – even if it means fewer new houses get built. We protect urban conservation areas. Few people regret the permanent guardianship awarded the historic centres of Liverpool or Leeds, Norwich or Brighton, or much of central London. So why not offer the same protection to the historic landscapes round their outer rims?

Rural Britain outside national parks is currently vulnerable to policy turmoil. Governments protect hills but pollute rivers, they guard trees but tip rubbish. One field may be of “scientific interest”, another is worth a try. All a builder needs to do is find a farmer, make an offer and throw lawyers at an underworld of councillors, planners, action groups, inspectors and judges. Rarely will scenic value be an issue.

Ask any developer what they need from local authorities and most will say certainty. They want to know where to expend their effort with minimum cost and delay. Outside the UK’s 15 national parks and 46 areas of outstanding national beauty, there is no longer the boundary between town and country laid down at the birth of planning in the 1940s. There is no guarding of views, no clustering of settlements, no concern for local materials or local opinions. The organic growth of villages is replaced by “volume housing” encampments of 200–300 units by one of the big four developers. Travel in a train from Manchester to London, and you pass through a countryside pockmarked at random with toy-town housing estates. It looks awful.

We must decide what of rural Britain really needs protecting for its nature conservation of scenic beauty, and what can be sacrificed and to what degree. We need to restore the protection accorded to different types of farmland after the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. We must treat the countryside as we do towns, to “list” and grade what needs protecting and what does not.

A Domesday Book of the countryside would not be the bureaucratic project it sounds. Farmland is already recorded for agricultural subsidy purposes. It would be for local authorities in consultation with local people to assign gradations of protection, from grade 1 for national parks and lesser grades to scenic and other value, down to whatever grade indicates release for building. I am sure that ironically this would yield more, not less, land for housing development than the present chaos.

At this point the green belt debate disappears. Belts that are of appropriate public amenity would be listed for all time. The rest could be released. But without such listing, any weakening of the present protection must be resisted. It is as simple as that.

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