Regeneration minister Jeff Rooker has provoked outrage after dismissing most Green Belt land as 'rubbish'.
Rooker, speaking at the ODPM's Better Buildings Summit last week, also told delegates there was 'an obsession with Green Belts'.
The comments have provoked deep concern from both the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and Friends of the Earth (FOE), who fear a move to relax Green Belt policy.
The CPRE's head of planning, Henry Oliver, said Rooker's comments were 'unhelpful' and 'depressing' and defended the Green Belt rules as 'fantastically valuable'.
'The appearance of Green Belt land is irrelevant to the function it fulfils within the planning system, ' Oliver said. 'I hope the government is not lured off course by the siren voices that argue that because Green Belt land looks scruffy it should be built on.'
'It's particularly depressing that a government minister with responsibility for regeneration should be saying these things, ' he added.
Friends of the Earth also condemned the comments as 'peculiar, uninformed and contradictory'.
'The primary objective of the policy is urban containment, not landscape quality, ' FOE's planning adviser Hugh Ellis said. 'I wish we could have planning ministers who know about planning.'
Ellis said he feared Rooker's comments revealed an intention to relax the Green Belt policy - a 'disastrous' consequence of the 'misguided' Communities Plan and an obsession with concentrating growth in the South, he said. 'They are doing it by stealth, allowing the inner boundary to be reviewed and spreading the outer boundary outwards, ' he added. 'We will resist it and the public will resist it.'
However, the TCPA welcomed a review of the rules.
'We would agree that a lot of it is rubbish, ' policy officer Robert Shaw said. 'Some land is of low agricultural quality and could be better built on. We need to look at where it works and where it is restricting.' And he suggested the replacement of 'belts' with 'wedges' of land most worthy of protection.
In a moderation of his comments, Rooker later issued a statement to the AJ confirming his support for 'the contribution the Green Belts make in protecting the countryside'.