Caroline Spelman, the UK Conservative Party’s shadow local government secretary, has attacked the New Labour government for turning the Green Belt into more of an elastic band, increasing it where there is no demand for new building and loosening it where there is. But that, surely, is what the government should be doing. Planning regulations ought to change to meet people’s needs.
However, there is a bigger problem with the Green Belt: it is based on the archaic idea that town and countryside must be kept apart, and it stirs deep anxieties about change and about the proximity of other people.
There are 1.5million hectares (3.8million acres) that are designated ‘Green Belt’ - around 12 per cent of England - plus a further 156,600 hectares in Scotland. The first Green Belt in modern times was created by the London and Home Counties Green Belt Act of 1938. Since then, Green Belts have been established around Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands, as well as many other smaller towns, under then Tory minister Duncan Sandys’ ‘historic circular’ of 1955 ‘inviting local planning authorities to consider the establishment of green belts’ (1).
Green Belts are ‘areas of land intended to be left open and protected from inappropriate development’. Their purpose is ‘to check the sprawl of largely built-up areas, safeguard surrounding countryside from encroachment’ and ‘prevent neighbouring towns from merging’, according to the government (2). ‘We have a clear duty to do all we can to prevent the further unrestricted sprawl of the great cities’, said minister Duncan Sandys (who was later denounced by Edward Hearth as the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’) (3).
Today, the New Labour government’s proposals to ‘streamline planning proposals’ were shot down in flames by Guardian columnist Ros Coward as ‘a green light to the developers’. ‘There is virtually no mention of environmental protection, nature conservation, or Green Belt’, complained Coward (4). Forty years earlier, housing minister Richard Crossmann ‘began to realise what a sacred cow the Green Belt had become in progressive circles’, when he agreed the development of a model village, Ash Green in Hartley, Kent (5). Though quite why progressives are so determined to protect the status quo is hard to understand. You would think that it would be a good idea to build people the houses they need, but apparently wetlands are more important.