Battle lines over Brontëland show why green belts are on dangerous ground

Christine Went, of the Bronte Society, at the site of a controversial planning decision at Weavers Field, Haworth
Christine Went, of the Bronte Society, at the site of a controversial planning decision at Weavers Field, Haworth
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There is growing concern that areas of green belt land will disappear in the next few years amid the pressure to build more new houses. Chris Bond reports.

Standing on the path that runs along Weavers Hill in Haworth and watching the hazy winter sunshine slowly peeking through the mist is a breathtaking sight.

It’s the same path that Charlotte Brontë would have used to go to Oxenhope when she was meeting her father’s curate, and her future husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls. This is the heart of Brontë country and just five minutes walk from the stunning moorland landscape that has enchanted visitors and locals alike for centuries.

However, local councillors, residents and the Brontë Society are worried that Weavers Hill could end up being used for a housing development. Last autumn, a Bradford businessman revealed plans for 320 homes on green belt land the first phase of which would be to build 120 homes on land at Weavers Hill. A scheme has yet to be submitted to Bradford Council but it is just one of many green belt sites across the country under threat from development.

According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) these threats include proposals for over 80,000 new houses, as well as new roads, open cast coal mines, airport expansion, golf courses and industrial parks.

Last month, the Yorkshire Post revealed that nearly half of all applications to build on green belt land in the past five years have been approved by Yorkshire local authorities, with conservationists warning more of the region’s green spaces will be lost if controversial new planning laws are implemented.

Figures show just over 45 per cent of applications to build on green belt land, areas set aside for open space to protect the land around larger towns and cities from urban sprawl, received by planning departments at local councils have been given the go ahead since 2005.

The chronic shortage of good, affordable housing in the UK has been well documented, but disagreements have arisen over where this housing should go. The Government is contemplating some of the most far-reaching changes to the planning system in a generation and last year it published the National Planning Policy Framework document, which set out planning rules for England that included encouraging development on brownfield sites.

Paul Miner, senior planning campaigner for the CPRE, says the Government has broadly maintained the existing policy to protect green belt land, but says there is too much vagueness and uncertainty within the framework and is concerned at the way it is being implemented on the ground.

“There’s more pressure on local authorities to have a five years supply of sites for housing development that are both viable and available. But how viable it is seems to come down to the developer and it’s easier to develop greenfield sites rather than brownfield sites.

“There are also concerns about whether local authorities which share areas of green belt are working together to protect them, because the picture we have been getting is not encouraging,” he says. “A survey carried out in Yorkshire last year showed there were proposals to build around 23,000 new dwellings on green belt land across Yorkshire as well as plans to release significant areas for warehouses and new bypasses.”

But he says people power can make a difference. “Local campaigners can play an important part to make sure green belt is protected. They can question what is happening and put pressure on local authorities to look more closely at suitable sites that aren’t green belt, because that has had positive results in places likes Somerset.”

John Denham, a CPRE trustee in West Yorkshire, is concerned about plans to build homes on the region’s green belt in places like Leeds, Bradford and Kirklees. “We do fully understand there is a need for more houses and more affordable houses, particularly for first time buyers,” he says. “We’re not against housing developments, we want beautiful towns and villages to make beautiful countryside but we reckon this can be done without major incursions into green belt.”

He believes that maintaining existing green belt land is crucial. “It has protected towns and villages for many years and stopped them merging into one. That’s particularly true between Leeds and Bradford, but there are areas of North Kirklees and Spen Valley were green fields have disappeared and our big worry is that once you start using green belt for housing development you lose that land forever.”

Over in Haworth, the proposals for Weavers Hill would include a mix of detached and semi-detached houses, with affordable two-bed semis making up 10 per cent of the scheme. But Christine Went, heritage and conservation officer at the Brontë Society, believes any housing development in this particular spot would be detrimental to the village. “Haworth’s economy is heritage tourism, there’s not much else, and anything that effects that effects the local economy and would change the character of the village,” she says.

“There must be a case, surely, for councils to say there will be no building on green belt until all brownfield and inner-city land has been exhausted because there is plenty of that.” Local authorities have been told to develop brownfield sites first and foremost, but the trouble is brownfield and inner-city land is expensive and developers see places like Haworth as desirable places to live for commuters.

With its picturesque setting you can certainly understand why people might want to live here, but Went doesn’t believe Haworth needs more houses. “The housing market has been stagnant for years and there are good, affordable houses that just don’t sell.” She also questions whether it is has the infrastructure to support a bigger population. “The schools are full and more people could jam up the roads between here and Keighley, or here and Bradford.” Many people in the village, she says, are opposed to the plans. “The Parish Council has said this is not needed or wanted and isn’t productive for the village. Haworth Parish Church is against it and Peter Mayo-Smith, the vicar, put out statement saying that while they recognise that people need houses it’s important where they are built.”

But aren’t they leaving themselves open to accusations of nimbyism – or “not in my back yard”? “We’ve had this aimed at us before on all kinds of things, but this is a national backyard like the Lake District. Would you start building houses around Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, or in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex? The Brontë Society does recognise the need for homes, it’s the same with wind farms, we aren’t opposed to them it’s just about where you put them and we think there needs to be a lot more sensitivity towards places like this.”

Went is concerned about the village growing too fast. “Haworth is the kind of place where if you have a problem your neighbour will help, but if the village expands too much that will be lost because incomers change a place. A village can absorb a few and eventually they become part of the community, as the Brontës did. But they struggle to cope with large influxes of people,” she says.

“People come here because they want to go on to the moors and they want to see the Haworth of the Brontës’ and they can, but if you start building then you worry about the domino effect. What about future housing needs and what if Bradford does the same again?

“These fields would go and then you’ve got housing to the moorlands edge and the whole character of the area is changed forever and it would be such a shame.”

Our green and pleasant land

England’s green belts cover 1,619,835 hectares, which equates to 12.4 per cent of England’s total landscape.

Green belts contain 41 
per cent of the area covered by England’s community forests.

The introduction of green belts was the culmination of years of campaigning by CPRE.

The first green belt was proposed around London and came into existence in 1958.

Green belts are a planning policy designation with five key purposes: to stop urban sprawl, prevent big urban areas joining together; safeguard the countryside from encroachment; protect the setting of historic towns; and encourage urban regeneration and 
 the development of brownfield land.