It’s nearly a month since the launch of CPRE’s new Green Belt campaign and a good time to reflect on its impact.
Green Belt forever?
The initial media coverage and public response has been very encouraging. It’s clear that, both in reality and concept, Green Belt policy commands widespread public support. It's therefore unsurprising that, with a few exceptions, politicians of all parties – from Jeremy Corbyn to David Cameron – are vocal in their commitment to it.
However, I have two questions following recent political utterances on this subject: what makes politicians question the value of Green Belt? And why aren't those who profess to support the Green Belt prepared to act on it?
The current contest for the Labour London mayoral candidacy has revealed quite different perspectives on the Green Belt. Most appear to support it, albeit not very loudly. One of the contenders, David Lammy, however, has been outspoken in his opposing view, tweeting in May that ‘Green Belt regulations allow older generations to protect their golf courses when young people can’t afford a decent home. Needs to change.’
Greenbelt regulations allow older generations to protect their golf courses while young people can't afford a decent home. Needs to change.— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) May 14, 2015
To blame Green Belt for lack of affordable housing is by no means new. Unsurprisingly, it’s become a drum beat played regularly by many housing developers and providers. Here is not the place to challenge the basis of such views – there’s a strong riposte in CPRE’s recent ‘mythbusting’ paper - but it’s unusual for a leading politician to adopt such a position. Perhaps the judgement is simply that it will win them votes? When pressed, David Lammy says he is not talking about building on ‘wonderful green spaces’, only old car parks, quarries and ‘wasteland’. The danger is that this will only encourage unscrupulous landowners to create more ‘wasteland’, thereby undermining the success of Green Belt policy. And much of yesterday’s ‘wasteland’ has become today’s wonderful green space – precisely because Green Belt protection has prevented its release for housing development. Such is the case in the Lee Valley where the Regional Park Authority, whose operational area touches the eastern edge of David Lammy’s constituency, has been so successful. It is worrying that David, who is an astute politician, should take such a misplaced view of the Green Belt.
What’s most striking though is how strong the political consensus in favour of Green Belt policy appears to be, at least in terms of public comment, across all parties. Long may such political sense prevail. Yet there is a worrying tendency that appears to be taking hold: the contrast between the desire, understandable given the strength of public support, of politicians to ‘talk the talk’ about Green Belt but not to ‘walk the walk’.
CPRE was delighted when David Cameron gave a powerful speech before the election where he argued passionately that ‘when it comes to our Green Belt, I have been clear. The line remains scored in the sand – that land is precious. Protecting the Green Belt is paramount’. How is it therefore that the rate of housebuilding on Green Belt land has grown exponentially in recent years? What is the Government doing to tackle that problem? It appears, very little. A spokesman from Number 10 seemed to be more interested in passing the buck when he said that ‘if local councils want to build on Green Belt land they must designate other areas as Green Belt. There will always be parity.’ Given that the Government has made it much harder to designate new Green Belt than to develop existing Green Belt, and the lack of evidence of new Green Belt being created, this is worryingly complacent.
Even more concerning, though, is the failure to understand both the primary function of Green Belt policy: to prevent urban sprawl, and the essential characteristic of Green Belt land: its permanence. If you allow local councils constantly to relax Green Belt boundaries to allow it to be built on, or to define ever more kinds of development as ‘appropriate’ in policy terms – as appears to be the case with the recent Rural Productivity Plan, then whether or not new areas of Green Belt are designated is irrelevant. What matters most about Green Belt is not how much of it there is but where it is. That this appears not to be understood by leading politicians or senior Government officials is deeply troubling. Unless decisive action is taken now by the Government to honour its pre-election pledge, our Green Belt, unlike a diamond, may not be forever.
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