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Piecemeal planning will disfigure the green belt

Hattie Hartman
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Environmental concerns should be the starting point in any debate about the Green Belt, but that doesn’t mean we can’t build on it, says Hattie Hartman

Writing in The Times, Bill Bryson called the green belt ‘the most intelligent, far-sighted, thrillingly and self-evidently successful land management policy any nation has ever devised’. Whether or not you buy Bryson’s rhapsodic assessment, it does not categorically entail his entrenched opposition to any encroachment on green belt land. 

Glenigan research reported by the BBC reveals that the number of residential planning approvals in the green belt doubled from under 6,000 to almost 12,000 between 2014 and 2015. In recent months, debate about the green belt has escalated in volume and intensity, almost always in connection with the housing shortage. This is wrong. 

Any decision about construction on the green belt must consider not only housing need, but also a careful assessment of issues such as biodiversity, flood risk, air pollution, transport carbon footprint, urban heat island and public access to nature. This does not mean we shouldn’t build on it. What it does mean is that this precious resource for our metropolitan areas needs to be reevaluated in the face of 21st-century challenges. 

Green-belt development should both enhance the site’s natural characteristics and increase access to nature

HTA Design’s planning partner, Riëtte Oosthuizen, notes that green-belt development should both enhance the natural characteristics of a site and increase people’s access to nature, to improve their health and wellbeing, an increasingly important planning concern.

Public and professional voices have joined lay commentators in the debate, with conferences, an exhibition at the Building Centre and numerous debates and white papers from the likes of the House of Commons Library, the London Assembly, LSE, CPRE, the London Society, Open-City and the Landscape Institute, to mention just a few. 

The first point that must be clarified is the extent and nature of green belt land. With the publication of the digital Green Belt Atlas Version 3 (February 2017) by Alastair Rae of the University of Sheffield, that task has become much easier. Green belt Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data is now transparent, publicly available and free. 

About 13 per cent of England has green belt designation in 14 metropolitan areas from York to London, according to the government’s Local Planning Authority Green Belt statistics, published in October 2015. Designations such as National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty protect the most ecologically sensitive areas, yet the green belt also contains stretches of the M25. Roughly two-thirds of the green belt is agricultural land, mostly privately held, which makes increased public access difficult.

140224 nwc vw02 masterplan

140224 nwc vw02 masterplan

Eddington, phase one of Northwest Cambridge

Despite all the clamour, innovative examples of development within the green belt are few. A promising project nearing completion is Eddington, phase one of Northwest Cambridge, an extension to the city spearheaded by the university which will provide 700 key worker homes, 325 postgraduate rooms and 450 market-rate homes in three to five-storey low-rise blocks. Fully a third of the site’s 150ha will remain dedicated open space. 

Exemplars are the best way to win over sceptics. To this end, RIBA president Ben Derbyshire is promoting a London Housing Expo to disseminate best practice and address public unease. ‘We need to imaginatively add to the definition of the green belt with a more proactive approach to biodiversity, carbon-offsetting and so on,’ says Derbyshire. 

During a decade of teaching at Cass, Geoff Shearcroft of AOC (one of several housing architects at Eddington) has teased out the landscape approach at Milton Keynes as one worth emulating, arguing for radical forms of dwelling which exploit the physical, environmental and emotional benefits of living with nature. ‘No development should be taller than a tree,’ says Shearcroft. Custom build offers a way forward advocated by AOC and Alex Ely of Mae.

What’s needed is a strategic long-term review led by government and detached from the short-termism and vested interests of Local Plan review. A piecemeal approach by each local authority means we’re likely to end up with a pock-marked green belt as disfigured as the London skyline.

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