Saturday, 16 July 2011

Tightening One's Belt: The Future of the Green Belt

Planners.  You can't live with them and you can't live without them.  Rarely does the media present a news story expanding on the benefits of the UK planning system.  Often planning, and by association planners, receives criticism for being overly bureaucratic and frustrating economic development.  Indeed, the Prime Minister went as far as calling the profession an 'Enemy of Enterprise'.  Yet there are times when the detailed oversight and collaborative nature of planning combine to create a positive reaction in the general pubic.  The longstanding Green Belt policy is one such example.
The rolling hills of a cherished Arcadia

Britain has an undoubted historic connection to the rolling green hills of Albion.  The countryside presents a purer version of the nation in contrast to the supposed dirt and grime of the growing cities.  This imagination may have been formed in the Industrial Revolution but still holds sway today and explains the popularity of Green Belt policy. Put simply, this policy safeguards rural land around cities from inappropriate development and contains urban sprawl.

It is no surprise therefore that a proposed relaxation of Green Belt policy has caused outrage among the chattering classes.  Geoffrey Lean, writing in the Daily Telegraph, was one who suddenly shone a light on the unrecognised benefits of planning's supposed 'boring' work in protecting quality of life (see here).  He was frustrated not just by the proposed concreting over of the countryside, but also by the way the Tories have conducted a volte face on the issue of planning.  In opposition the Tories published a Green Paper entitled Open Source Planning which extolled the benefits of Localism.  However, Lean is angered by how the Tories have moved from a policy of Localism in opposition (which he implies would protect the Green Belt) to greater central control since in Government.

This move to greater central control should not come as a surprise.  Firstly, many political parties preach about greater local powers when in opposition and then quickly forget it when in power.  Once in Government the Tories, like many others before them, realise they must keep wayward local governments in line and this requires a degree of central control.  Secondly, economic growth is stalled in Britain.  Despite the efforts of Eric Pickles MP the concept of Localism, like the Big Society, has floundered and has not convinced the Treasury it can deliver the required growth.  This explains why central government is now issuing policy regarding a relaxation of development in the Green Belt to stimulate much needed growth.

Containing the beast
I will be interested to see how the National Planning Policy Framework and presumption in favour of sustainable development progresses and the impact on the much cherished Green Belt protection.  I have always thought that Green Belt policy is too rigid and fails to take account of the dynamic nature of rural areas.  The countryside should be a diverse area that includes small industry and affordable housing.  Unfortunately the Green Belt has a mythical status that local planners and politicians can easily use to prevent required development.  The debate needs to move beyond vague conceptions of the countryside and understand that the country requires more housing.  This doesn't mean that the countryside has to be concreted over.  A more sophisticated debate would look to places such as Copehagen where the Green Belt forms a more wedge-like design (dubbed the 'Finger Plan').  This allows transport corridors to develop out from the city and higher density housing to complement the urban form.  

While it is good to see planning praised for once, let us not fall back on a dated assumption of what the Green Belt is and the purpose it fills.

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