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Attacks on the green belt are sinister in their implications

Never forget that it was only the prompt action of concerned citizens that saved Hampstead Heath from spec housing, writes Paul Finch

The magazine Property Week recently reported on a planning ‘manifesto’ by City solicitors Addleshaw Goddard, intended to ‘speed up development’, not least by building homes on green belt land. The firm hopes its ideas will become part of discussions in the run-up to the forthcoming general election in May next year.

Some are both radical and interesting: for example, they suggest splitting London into five boroughs, giving away brownfield sites, and discretionary pricing for public land sales to encourage necessary development. All this would take place in the context of a national plan, along the lines of Canada’s (why Canada is relevant is not clear), plus a return to regional development agencies. The latter has already been utterly rejected by the current coalition government, but who knows.

This set of recipes will make for lively conversation among those interested in these things. I just wish they had been equally radical about the subject of green belt. Admittedly their ideas are based on consultation with 50 developers and planners, but the lawyers are presumably happy to go along with the tired idea that the prevention of urban sprawl is inhibiting house building.

From observation, there is something Pavlovian about the reaction of the property industry to the sight of green and pleasant land. Where something is useful, healthy and/or beautiful, the industry seems to imagine that building all over it will somehow make it more so. You show a shopping centre developer a county cricket ground and all they can see is another dumb mall. School playing fields? Why can’t schoolkids stick with their Xboxes instead of running around in fresh air? Never forget that it was only the prompt action of concerned citizens that saved HampsteadHeath from being littered with spec housing. The builders’ instinct remains and should be resisted whenever they try to destroy the village green or common land.

The paucity of green open space - Metropolitan Open Land - in many dense new developments, for example the tower schemes at Nine Elms or those replacing the Shell Centre are signs of greed about land, and wilful ignorance about the need for the city to become more beautiful and spacious at ground level as it becomes denser vertically.

If Addleshaw Goddard and their consultees really wanted to suggest something radical about green belt, it would be to extend it into cities rather than building all over it outside them. Metropolitan green belt could include open land, gardens and allotments, which are the glory of unique London. It is those gardens, previously farmland or just plain old countryside, which John Prescott laughably wanted to categorise as ‘brownfield’ land when he was in charge of these things.

Since the gardens by definition had never been built on, even by Prescott’s standards this was mangling history and logic to an extraordinary degree, no doubt mindful of his own renaming of a place he once described as ‘Welwyn Garden Centre’.

This desperation on the part of politicians and housebuilders to blame the shortage of housing on planning policies and land shortage comes from different motives. The property boys want an easy run, though they make no claim to be able to address required quantity. Politicians are keen to divert attention from their own failure to address known need, and their pretending it didn’t really exist until it was too late to do anything other than resort to desperation tactics, those being: to blame everyone in sight except themselves.

There is no land shortage in London, just a shortage of political will-power. That is the truth behind the sinister attempt to pretend it is all the fault of green belt.

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