Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Adam Smith Institute should start with reading planning policy on Green Belt


I have some sympathy for the view that London's Green Belt needs an extensive and comprehensive review. And I know this is difficult - politically and practically - given the range of differing interests and the multitude of interested public bodies (starting with over 50 local councils). Indeed the scale of the requirement is such that, however much Londoner might whimper about localism, conducting a review would have to be under the direction of national government.

Various organisations are chuntering about the need for change and the Adam Smith Institute is at the forefront. The problem is that the ASI appears not to have done the basic first job of reading the actual reasons for having a 'Green Belt' in the first place:

The research done by bodies such as the Adam Smith Institute and London First contradicts the popular image of the Green Belt as green and pleasant land. Far from the daisy-strewn meadows and woods teeming with wildlife that the term suggests, much Green Belt land is farmland, with monoculture fields by no means friendly to wildlife or accessible to people.

The first step in re-evaluation might be to classify Green Belt land into the different types that comprise it. There is genuinely green land, the fields and woods that everyone likes. There is damaged or brownfield land, partly made up of abandoned buildings, gravel pits and the like. And there is farmland, much of which is not environmentally friendly.

It is very good of these people to do this research telling every planner and most local councillors exactly what they already knew - that the 'Green Belt' is not either all green or entirely worthy of protection on environmental grounds. But what we also know - which the ASI seems to have missed - is that prettiness (for want of a better word) is not the reason for having a 'Green Belt'.  The policy gives five reasons:

To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
To prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
To assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land 

None of these reasons relate to the use of land in the 'Green Belt'. The fact of needing to achieve those five policy objectives is met by controlling the uses to restrict those that do harm to the 'Green Belt'. And that 'harm' isn't some form of torture but rather anything that runs counter to the five reasons set out in policy. In simple terms the primary issue is 'openness' not the aesthetic of that openness.

We have a 'Green Belt' primarily in order to control the development of urban areas. This isn't about protecting special places in the countryside - we have other designations from 'Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty' through to 'Regionally Important Geological and Geomorphological Sites' that are intended to protect places we think are beautiful, ecologically-important, historically significant or otherwise somewhat unusual or unique.

London has a problem with housing supply - we all know that. And reviewing the 'Green Belt' would be a good idea in helping to meet that problem (although I wish those charged with review well and hope they have very thick skins). But the ASI's approach is completely misplaced - the 'Green Belt' isn't about protecting woodland and flower meadows but about making sure we concentrate development within existing settlements rather than allowing those settlements to extend to the point they lose their identity and become just a part of the London built-up area.


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