29th October 2007, The Times Countryside Guardian Questions Greenbelt Role

Natural England – the government organisation charged with protecting the English countryside – surprised many when, as reported in the Times on 29th October 2007, it called for a review of laws preserving the green belt. If the review goes as Natural England anticipates it will clear the way for thousands of homes to be built on green belt land that was previously safeguarded. Sir Martin Doughty, chairman of Natural England, argued that surging demand for new homes – Gordon Brown has targeted three million new homes by 2020 – meant that “the sanctity of green belt land should be questioned”. He believes consideration should be given to environmentally friendly development on some of the 4.2m acres of green belt land that were designated, fifty years ago, as no-build zones.

Doughty said, “Nobody could deny, and we do not, that the green belt has achieved its primary purpose in constraining urban sprawl. But the consequence of this is that development tends to leapfrog over the green belt onto land in much more vulnerable parts of the natural environment. We must therefore review the green belt and commit more effort to making the green belt something that adds value.” In England, 14 towns and cities have green belts, the earliest dating from 1955. The biggest belt is around London, while other belted areas include Oxford, Nottingham, York, the LiverpoolManchester conurbation and the denser urban regions of Yorkshire. In total, 13% of England’s land surface is green belt. Doughty, speaking on Natural England’s first anniversary, remarked that the green belt “was certainly not intended to deal with the complex environmental challenges that face us today. Unsurprisingly, Natural England’s comments have raised the hackles of some environmental campaigners and will worry those living next to green belt who value their tranquillity. Tom Oliver, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England said Natural England “fails to recognise the virtue of the green belt and that its permanence is what makes it so effective”. The Times reported that supporters of development argue that some green belt land is far from picturesque while ‘brownfield’ sites – identified by Brown’s government as the first choice for development – are sometimes environmentally more important than parts of the green belt, acting as inner city breathing space, and as wildlife havens. There have already been developments permitted in the green belt. Earlier this year Epping Forest Council accepted an application to build 119 new homes on green belt land because 80% of the homes were affordable housing. There was opposition from neighbouring Waltham Forest Council, but the plans were finally approved this month. Doughty went on to warn that new developments on greenfield sites, such as Gordon Brown’s proposed eco-towns, must be of exceptionally high quality in concept, design and execution. “Our fear remains that eco-towns will become carbon-neutral battery farms for people, lacking any radical design edge that could see homes for people and habitats for wildlife integrated into the same high-quality green space.

“...the green belt has achieved its primary purpose in constraining urban sprawl. But the consequence of this is that development tends to leapfrog over the green belt onto land in much more vulnerable parts of the natural environment. We must therefore review the green belt and commit more effort to making the green belt something that adds value.”

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