We are drawing to the end of an incredibly eventful year. It was the year of the underdog, the year of the power shift, the year of change. Yet through it all CPRE has remained a constant voice arguing the need to continue to value and protect the Green Belt.
Green Belt: One legacy we can be proud of
Our new report, Nature Conservation and Recreational Opportunities in the Green Belt, is confirmation of the enormous benefit and value of the Green Belt. Through our campaigning, the first Green Belts were established way back in 1933 as a planning tool to prevent urban sprawl in London and Sheffield. But today, the Green Belt – expanded to surround 14 of our major urban areas – means so much more.
We already know that Green Belt land covers 12.5% of the area of England and that it’s the countryside nearest to where 30 million people live. What we have also found is that Green Belt land is where you can find 12% of all our priority habitats, including particular concentrations of woodland, lowland heathland, lowland meadow and lowland fen, discrediting the argument that all Green Belt land is poor quality. It’s clear that this land contains significant resources of natural capital, affording us an opportunity to create and restore natural habitats and ecological networks that have come under threat from development and intensive agriculture.
All of this in itself is worth protecting and it’s our responsibility to do so. The more Green Belt we lose or damage, the more disservice we do to our legacy. Do we really want to be the generation that ruined Green Belt for everyone else?
The human connection
But Green Belt isn’t just about natural capital. If it were then perhaps people wouldn’t feel such an emotional attachment to it. The other side of Green Belt is the one that enhances our lives. Our research shows that Green Belt land is where almost half our country parks are, along with more than a third of our community forests and Woodland Trust land and a quarter of all our nature reserves and registered parks and gardens. Some 17% of our public rights of way and 12% of our cycle network are also in Green Belt land. That is an enormous amount of recreational resource that so many of us use even if we aren’t explicitly aware that we’re in Green Belt land at the time.
For millions who live in England’s major cities, the Green Belt is their little bit of countryside, their escape from the smog and the bustle, for now and future generations. It’s where people go to jog, to ride their bikes, to hike, ramble or stroll, to walk their dogs, to play sport or just to get away from it all. That too is worth protecting and we hear stories about what people use the Green Belt for on a daily basis. The benefits to body and soul are many.
Take the Our Green Belt campaign, for example, or the many campaigns and activities we’ve seen across the country with people taking a stand to protect the Green Belt. The Green Belt means something special to people and their communities.
‘I walk every day in my area … through fields and lanes to Leeds/Bradford Airport, returning through lanes over the railway bridge back to Cookridge. Without these wonderful paths which are free to walk and engage with nature the restriction/loss of these amenities would be horrendous.’ ~ Grace Clark
‘I use the Green Belt in the West Midlands near where I live to walk my dog, it is my way of exercising and relaxing. It fills me with joy to breathe fresh air and see and hear the birds, animals and wild flowers I encounter.’ ~ Linda Cordwell
‘With nearly 50% of London households not having access to a car, being able to access open space by bicycle or on foot will be increasingly important. For me, stopping after 90 minutes on the bicycle and hearing only birds and animals, seeing trees and hedges and open land, and the wind, is a tonic.’ ~ Matthew Hardy
Those are just the tip of the iceberg. Many people enjoy their connection with nature while walking, exploring and learning about their environment as well as a strong feeling about the specific resource, related to the ecology, economy or amenity.
When it’s gone, it’s gone
Green Belt land has enormous amenity value, as well as natural capital. Attempts to chip away at Green Belt threaten to set in motion a rapid descent down a slippery slope. We know that there is a need for housing, but this in itself is not a sufficient reason for allowing building in the Green Belt, especially when you consider that there are suitable brownfield sites for more than 1 million homes across the country. Furthermore, the housing that is actually built on Green Belt land is often far from affordable and does little to alleviate any of the housing crisis. However, while we support building on brownfield sites in urban areas as an alternative to greenfield, some brownfield sites in the Green Belt may often be, because of their location, better returned to the countryside and to nature.
We want regulations in place to protect Green Belt to be respected. In addition, we call on the Government to prioritise investment in natural capital in Green Belts in the 25-year plan for the environment. We also want to see combined efforts to introduce long-term Green Belt management plans in order to deliver enhancements to natural capital and recreational opportunities. You only have to listen to the people and their stories about Green Belt to see why this is so worthwhile.
To take away Green Belt land for housing or anything else is taking something of immense value from our children, something they would surely not thank us for. We are living in a time of rapid change, but we have to face up to the fact that the decisions we make today will have lasting repercussions. Green Belts help sustain our cities in so many ways. Protecting the Green Belt is one legacy we can be proud of – and long may it continue.