Seeing red over the Green Belt

Green Belt protectors cried ‘not an inch!’, while their opponents insisted that ‘people must come first’. Sparks flew at last night’s spiked debate.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Topics Politics

As government ministers half-bake, environmentalists protest, and prospective home-buyers fret, the demand for new housing in the UK becomes ever more critical. Last night at the Building Centre in central London, spiked, in association with Clarke Mulder Purdie, hosted a debate that sought to address the housing shortage and the question of whether the relaxation of Green Belt planning restrictions might provide an answer.

Arguing the case for the Green Belt were lecturer, writer and broadcaster Dr Tristram Hunt and Paul Miner of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). They were up against Penny Lewis, editor of leading Scottish architecture magazine Prospect, and urban regeneration professional Michael Owens. The debate was chaired by spiked’s editor-at-large Mick Hume.

Up first was Michael Owens who began by arguing that there was little doubting the need for new housing. Population growth combined with a rise in the number of people choosing to live in smaller households had seen to that. But this need not be a cause for despair, he said. Aided and abetted by a powerpoint map of the UK, Owens distinguished built-up areas from those that were not, indicating the sheer amount of space available for new development. Moreover, with appropriate ‘planning for strategic infrastructure’ there is absolutely no reason why we could not live anywhere in the UK, Owens argued.


Watch urban regeneration expert Michael Owens
(courtesy of Friction.tv)

This, however, is why the Green Belt proves problematic. It is, he argued, principally about the containment of urban areas, and as such it inhibits planning and development. The building of new homes where we need them most – that is, the South East of England – is one of the main casualties. Citing a response in the Financial Times to a letter by Paul Miner, he argued that if just a fraction of the London’s Green Belt were to be developed, say 40 square miles of the metropolitan total of 2,000, then this could provide, at the current housing densities, something in the region of new 750,000 homes.

Paul Miner was, predictably, not persuaded. Citing one of the CPRE’s own surveys, he argued that despite apparently needing more houses, the majority of the British public want to keep the Green Belt. The reasons are not hard to fathom, he suggested. Certain developers and planners ‘go on as if Green Belt consisted only of industrially farmed wasteland’ when in fact it contains areas of high natural beauty and ecological value. He was keen not only to play up its environmental credentials as it stands now, but to suggest that more effort should go into making it yet ‘greener’. For then the Green Belt might better be able to realise itself as a tool of ‘environmental and social justice’.

If Miner was enthusiastic about the Green Belt, he was sceptical about the extent of the housing crisis. This crisis, he argued, was due to artificially inflated levels of demand, fuelled by the money-grubbing buy-to-let market. What housing demand there is, he asserted, could be met through the regeneration of brownfield sites – that is, previously developed urban land. In this regard, an interesting objection was raised from the floor: building on urban brownfield sites actually makes it difficult to have any green spaces in cites.


Watch CPRE’s Paul Miner
(courtesy of Friction.tv)

Next up was Penny Lewis, who offered a Scottish perspective. There, she argued, the issue was far less fraught, with a two-tier approach distinguishing areas that are worth preserving from those that can be built upon. She said that the new emerging consensus around questioning Green Belt legislation was reflected in the number of Scottish aristocrats, previously seen as the protectors of the Green Belt, now campaigning for its relaxation.

Such an emerging consensus, she continued, is palpable south of the border too, where the need to ‘increase the housing provision in the South East’, in particular, was placing Green Belt legislation in opposition to people’s needs. Moreover, the threat of distinct settlements merging, or ‘coalescing’ – the fear of those who in the 1930s drafted the initial Green Belt legislation – is deemed no longer valid. Since we have the wealth and the capacity to travel, ‘we can live in a far more dispersed manner now’.

But if Green Belt legislation is being experienced as increasingly restrictive, Lewis was not convinced that simply liberalising planning was necessarily going to produce houses that meet people’s needs. In Scotland, the calls for relaxing planning restrictions went hand in hand with a strong ‘conservative element’ in terms of design, with many pushing for variations of ‘eco-towns’. For while such relaxation might answer a technical problem, the cultural malaise that damns the ‘urban sprawl’, and which sees suburbia as the death knell of civic pride, still persists. Instead, Lewis wanted to ‘reclaim the idea of planning’ as something more ‘visionary’, something that might match the ambition to ‘make the world in man’s image’. This was something Owens echoed: planners and architects are feared today, as if any grander aspiration to rationalise and order our environment will inevitably produce a ‘modernist abomination’, an authoritarian imposition upon our haphazard lives.


Watch Penny Lewis of Prospect magazine
(courtesy of Friction.tv)

Tristram Hunt spoke last. His militant attitude to protecting the Green Belt from marauding architects and developers was evident from the start. Leaning towards the audience he answered the question of whether we should build on the Green Belt with characteristic certainty: ‘Like an Israeli settler I say “not one inch”.’ His finger duly prodded the point home. Without the Green Belt our cities would resemble the American sprawls like Atlanta or Phoenix that so terrified the original advocates of the Green Belt. His determination to protect the Green Belt at all costs was reflected in his response to Val Kirby of Natural England. Speaking from the floor, she suggested, rather moderately, that Green Belt policy could do with a bit of refreshing, boundary revisions perhaps. ‘Apostate!’ accused Hunt. ‘You should be holding the land not surrendering it’.

Where Lewis and Owens saw a consensus that the Green Belt must give way to demand, Hunt saw the vested interests of property speculators and lobby groups. Developers are ‘greedy, lazy bastards’ he demurred, and the only way to get them to innovate, to design afresh, is if ‘you hold them by the balls’. Without the discipline of the Green Belt, what you’ll get is something horrible. Or, to be more specific, ‘the East Midlands’. Encouraging ‘shitty houses built by shitty developers’ has left it little more than a giant warehouse.

For Hunt, the question of relaxing planning legislation touched upon a broader cultural problem – the decline, as he saw it, of a civic sense. Reaching a peak at some point during the nineteenth century, that sense of communal identity reflected in a town’s layout had been undermined by suburban development – further development would only exacerbate the atomisation and social alienation, he seemed to suggest. This was evident in the response to the implosion of the subprime mortgage market in America: that the first thing many Americans did was to flee the burbs, be they boom-, ex-, or sub-, showed that there was nothing binding people together. At the first hint of trouble they deserted.


Watch Green Belt supporter Tristram Hunt
(courtesy of Friction.tv)

At this point, Mick Hume, having taken some questions from the floor, asked if defenders of the Green Belt were motivated by snobbery, a not-in-my-field outlook. Hunt was insistent: far from keeping the rapine masses from the rural gentry, the Green Belt, as one of its earliest advocates, the Labour MP Herbert Morrison intended, was to provide the urban working class with access to the countryside. It was not keeping the masses from the countryside, but democratising it.

In this regard, Lewis was sympathetic to Hunt. Some advocates of the Green Belt, for instance, the progenitor of the Garden City Ebenezer Howard, may well have had progressive motives, she said. But equally, others may have had deeply conservative reasons for wanting to keep town and country separate. In some ways, however, that is irrelevant today. The meaning of the Green Belt has shifted, Lewis argued.

While traditionally, as Hunt was keen to impress, the suburban sprawl of American cities haunted the propagators of the Green Belt, today protecting the eco-system is to the fore. Paul Miner repeatedly alluded to the context of climate change that made protecting the Green Belt imperative. By putting a break on development, it encouraged ‘sustainability before the term was invented.’ This was echoed, albeit negatively, in the responses from the floor. An attendee from the Home Builders Association pointed out that people were being stopped from building on the periphery of the Green Belt for fear that they’d disturb the environment. As Owens said, the countryside is turned into a theme park, albeit one where visitors are hardly encouraged.

This idea of disturbance was key. It was as if the human imprint itself was the problem. As Austin Williams from Future Cities said, as the volume of talk about ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ increases, fewer and fewer houses are actually being built. From fear of ‘carbon footprints’ to ‘sustainability’, restrictions, whether planning or cultural, predominate. In such a climate it is little wonder that the problem of housing – a problem that should be simple to solve – appears so complex. As Lewis argued in conclusion, the issue is not simply to do with planning legislation; it is the culture of restraint in which decisions about housing and development are made today.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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