The Turner Prize...
What did you think? Cutting edge? Experimentation? Boundary-pushing? Indulgent nonsense?
What did you think? Cricket matches taking place on a village green in front of a thatched cottage? A ruddy-cheeked farmer stacking hay bales in the sweet-scented aroma of a newly-mown meadow? Sunday morning rambles with children through an ancient woodland, stopping for a game of poohsticks before lunching in a listed coaching inn turned michelin-starred Gastro-pub? These are, of course, all wrong answers.
- checking the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
- prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
- assisting in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
- preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
- assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
The NPPF states that "the fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence". There is no reference to ecological, landscape or leisure value there at all. Just openness and permanence (permanence in the twenty year sense not the two year sense). The Green Belt relates to settlements because it protects them from merging; protects their setting (if they are historic), and promotes their renewal (if they contain derelict land). The Green Belt also relates to the 'countryside', in so far as protecting it from encroachment is concerned. It could be argued, therefore, that the Green Belt is designed to protect land on either side of it rather than the land covered by it (Barney Stringer of Quod Planning has analysed the role and function of London's Green Belt, which makes for interesting reading). It is a very local designation, with it's width in any given location related to specific circumstances. It's use, application and meaning though, have taken on a wider national significance.
There is a parallel here with another of our national institutions: the NHS. Both were conceived in that golden post-war period when Britainnia still ruled the waves, when you could go to the village shop and leave your front door open, and when people cared more for each other than for themselves. The NHS is now so embedded within the national consciousness that the very thought of managing principles other than those adopted by Aneurin Bevan are treated as almost treasonous in some quarters. The public's attitude towards the Green Belt appears to be heading in a similar direction.
"Hang on, Sam." I hear you cry. "You work for a major home builder, of course you want to concrete over the Green Belt." Thank you for giving me that much credit. Like most town planners I subscribe to the Centre For Cities' three-pronged approach to the housing crisis, which can be summarised as greater urban densities through taller buildings and estate-renewal; the return of regional / sub-regional planning to address cross-boundary issues; and appropriate Green Belt release where needs justify it (new, or greatly expanded, settlements will also have to play a role).
The politicisation of Green Belt policy is making the prospect of sensible discussions about it harder and harder to achieve, which will mean that, as a direct result, building enough homes will become equally harder and harder to achieve. When I hear the words Green Belt two words instinctively lodge in my mind... Sacred cow...