Published in Total Politics (London), 22 August 2008
Political language is often misleading. Governments identify new ‘revenue streams’ when they raise taxes and party leaders tend to call a colleague ‘courageous’ when they think he has done something foolish. Another misleading term is ‘green belt’. That’s what the government has called vast tracts of land outside our towns and cities that it has wanted to protect from development – as if they were full of birds, bugs and gentle hedgerows. In fact, however, they are often home to industrialised agriculture.
The ‘green belt’ description has elevated imagination over reality in Britain’s planning system. To the public, the areas it refers to seem to be much needed reserves of nature in an overcrowded, concrete Britain. They are, or at least they are believed to be, the last remnants of what was once England’s green and pleasant land. To say anything against the concept of the green belt thus seems to smack of treachery.
But we need some hard-headed thought about why and how we protect land from the development we need. Perhaps it makes sense to tackle the biggest underlying myth first: the one that says land is a very scarce resource and that we are living on a densely populated island. How often have we heard such arguments in public debates about planning? Often enough, apparently, to convince the population that they must be true. In a survey, 54 per cent of the respondents said that at least half of England was developed with one in ten even estimating the proportion to be above 75 per cent.
These results indicate that most people probably haven’t seen much of England recently. The Generalised Land Use Database shows that only 9.8 per cent of all land in England is developed, a figure that includes garden space in the cities. By contrast, 88 per cent of the land is green, and 2.2 per cent, the waterways and lakes, blue.
Why is there such a gap between perception and reality? Perhaps because people have been told again and again that open land is disappearing. Maybe it is also true that most people spend most of their time in crowded cities and conclude that the rest of the country must be like that. But whatever the reason, England is a 90 per cent undeveloped country with no lack of open space.
Despite this, the public has long supported policies that limit development by protecting land. The green belt scheme was only the most eye-catching one. More than 1.6 million hectares in England (12.9 per cent of the land) are officially classified as green belt. This area alone is already larger than all developed space. But in addition, there are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks. In total, they account for 55.2 per cent of England’s land. In other words, in more than half of England there are arrangements that make it very difficult to build the houses that this country desperately needs to accommodate its population – a population that is growing in size but living in smaller households.
In view of these statistics, it would make sense to lead the green belt debate in a less emotional tone. Nobody wants to concrete over all the nice green fields near our cities, an approach that would not even be necessary to accommodate our housing needs. To put the figures into perspective, even if England’s urban areas were expanded by ten per cent, this could be achieved by only using less than one per cent of the total land mass. And it would still leave 89 per cent of the country untouched by development.
We should be having a more open discussion about which areas should be developed and how. This is the real debate that this country needs. Yet it should not be conducted as either for or against the green belt. Instead, we should talk about the decision-makers, i.e. whether the national government or local communities should decide where things go.
Local communities would be much better at weighing the pros and cons of development and come to more pragmatic and balanced decisions. It is local communities that know the housing demand in their areas best. They only have to ask their younger generations to find out how difficult it is for them to get on to the property ladder to immediately understand why some new houses are needed. But what local communities do not accept is being instructed what to build by a remote national government. This could also explain the widespread support for the green belt as well as the opposition to schemes such as the government’s ‘eco-towns’ (which are just another example of misleading political language).
The green belt thus has a future – but it should be a local one.