Friday, 20 February 2015

Green Belt. Sacred Cow.

Let's play a little word association game. A bit like Mallet's Mallet (for the readers who need to realise that knowing what this is makes you almost old...). Sam's Stick. Stafford's Staff. Anyway. You get the idea. I write a word, or words, you read it, and then lodge the first word, or words, that come in to your mind. Ok. Here we go.

The Premier League...
 
..., ok...
 
What did you think? Over-paid and over-hyped? Unmissable? Too many foreigners? Great brand?
 
There is, of course, no right answer. Football is a game. A sport. It means lots of different things to lots of different people.

Another one.

The Turner Prize...

..., ok...

What did you think? Cutting edge? Experimentation? Boundary-pushing? Indulgent nonsense?
 
There is, of course, no right answer. Art is a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities, usually involving imaginative or technical skill (at least according to Wikipedia). It too means lots of different things to lots of different people.
 
One last one...
 
Green Belt.

..., ok...

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.
 
If you got one or all of the following (all would be impressive...) you would be right:
  • 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 Green Belt is a policy designation that serves these purposes. It is one of the environmental and policy considerations to be taken into account by a Local Planning Authority when considering whether full, objectively assessed housing need can be met by a local plan. These should be pretty dry, binary, back and white discussions, but because the Green Belt is increasingly being both used and understood almost interchangeably with the word 'countryside', and a romanticised view of a particularly English countryside at that, these dry, binary, back and white discussions are becoming less and less frequent within the local plan process. The words Green Belt are becoming laden with the emotive senses of both a golden past and foreboding future, and the politics of the Green Belt is having a greater and greater influence on the planning system and it's ability to deliver new sites for new homes.

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...

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