8 April 2021

Make the Green Belt green again!


Language has such power in politics. The very name Green Belt makes it hard to oppose. Who could be anti-green, after all? Who could be in favour of ‘urban sprawl’ or ‘concreting over the countryside’?

It is entirely natural to favour a distinction between the countryside and our towns and cities. I recall during my London childhood the excitement when we went on holiday and I looked out of the window of the car or the train and saw that rolling fields had replaced housing and offices. 

Yet some may be surprised to learn that in Greater London itself no less than 22% of the land is designated as Green Belt. That comes to nearly 87,000 acres. 

James Forsyth wrote in The Times the other day about the paradox that Conservative MPs in outer London constituencies court popularity by defending the Green Belt and resisting development, yet in doing so imperil their own long term electoral survival. 

“It is hard not to see dissatisfied renters driving the capital’s turn against the Tories,” writes Forsyth. “Barely two thirds of private renters are happy with their lot, which is not surprising given that a single-earner family with a child in a two-bedroom house is spending 45% of their income on rent.”

He quotes one minister lamenting “the irony is that you get MPs in outer London who are quite militant about the green belt. But changing housing tenure is turning their constituencies into marginals.” 

Forsyth concludes: “The Tories are alienating their future electorate to assuage an older, more prosperous section of their current electorate. This makes sense only in the short term.” 

A glance at recent opinion polling suggests he is on to something. In elections due next month, the Conservatives are on course to snatch a remarkable victory in the Hartlepool by-election, but also to face an absolute drubbing in the election for Mayor of London. A few seconds on Zoopla tells me the average property price in Hartlepool is £133,216. In London it is £644,631. Enough said. 

By being caught in the political trap of championing state control and bureaucratic inflexibility to prohibit construction, suburban Tories (councillors as well as MPs) are sealing their own fate. 

Thankfully, one London MP has spoken out against this folly. She says:

“The green belt is not always the green belt. The term does not necessarily apply to areas of outstanding natural beauty, parkland or ‘lungs’ in cities. It can apply to the tatty bits of land that it is hard to believe are part of the green belt. I was amazed to discover that there are some 19,334 hectares of undeveloped green-belt land around train stations in London. If we were to develop only those sites, we could build one million new homes.

“The car valeting site in Tottenham Hale, the illegal waste tip in Hillingdon, the tip in Ealing that is inaccessible, the concrete airfield in Wisley: what happens to these ungreen green-belt sites that could provide a million new homes close to London train stations? Any London MP knows that we desperately need such homes for people who may never be able to afford to buy.” 

Who is this championing the causes of free enterprise and home ownership, which could offer electoral salvation to the Conservatives in the capital? Who is this brave individual prepared to challenge that terrible piece of socialist legislation, the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act? It’s actually Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden. 

What many might imagine to be Green Belt land – land with aesthetic or environmental merit – is actually already protected as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – indeed, that designation covers an estimated 15% of the land in England. Even if the Green Belt was abolished that land would still be protected.

The problem has been getting worse as land allocated to the Green Belt has been increasing. Liam Halligan, in his book Home Truths, notes:

“No less than 88% of the area in Guildford, the largest town in Surrey, is devoted to the Green Belt. More of Surrey is, in fact, covered by golf courses than by residential housing… 

“The designated land around Oxford – officially the UK’s most unaffordable city, with the average house price costing no less than 11.5 times the average local wage – is larger than in the university town, where houses are in desperately short supply. The same is true in York and Cambridge too, where the Green Belt is bigger than the place it is supposedly protecting.” 

Despite all this, I don’t really blame the Tory MPs who often side with the NIMBYs. It’s not just the miscalculation that they wish to avoid losing a few hundred votes from ageing conservationists at the next election – despite antagonising thousands more from Generation Rent. It is possible to be too cynical. The reality is that most of the development being put forward is awful. It is ugly. It would make the constituencies these MPs represent less attractive places to live. What are the MPs supposed to say? “This development is not as ugly as it looks,” or perhaps “I know it’s ugly but please support it anyway.” 

Even though the Green Belt land might include scuzzy contaminated bits of wasteland or derelict industrial buildings, often the tower blocks and assorted eyesores proposed to replace them would arguably look even worse. 

So the solution is not just to limit protection to Green Belt land that really is green. It is to bring in flexibility into the planning system to allow development to take place with the proviso that is beautiful. Suppose you have an ugly site of hundred acres of Green Belt wasteland. A developer is allowed to build a couple of hundred homes on 20 or 30 acres. But must also provide funds for a trust to create and manage a park or nature reserve on the other 70 or 80 acres. We might also stipulate that a design code that commands popular support, and that new buildings uses traditional local materials where possible.

Such a scheme could surely be profitable for the property developer, though the building ratios would vary according to the viability of different sites. But I reckon it would also be popular with existing residents. There will always be some vocal opponents of any big scheme, of course, but most people would welcome attractive new development. The local MP could speak up for it in good conscience, confident that the new project was both right and enjoyed the support of constituents.

Since 1970 living standards have been transformed in so many ways. Capitalism has delivered an abundance of products into ordinary homes of a variety that would have been impossible to imagine. But over the same period, the prices of those homes have tripled in real terms – that is, over and above inflation. That is not inevitable. It has not happened in other countries. It is due to the decision we have made to continue with a planning system which prevents us from having a genuine housing market. 

The grand compromise that the Government is seeking to introduce is to liberate developers from the existing constraints, but, rather than a free-for-all, only permit designs that win local enthusiasm. It has accepted the case for beauty made by the social enterprise Create Streets and the Conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who kept working on this cause until his death last year.

The logic of embracing that flexibility is that the Green Belt should go. But given the misunderstanding about the current system, perhaps a better description of this new policy should be: “Make the Green Belt truly green.”

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.