Paul Miner: Sacrificing the green belt is no fix for housing crisis

AHEAD OF David Cameron’s new policies on housebuilding at the Tory conference, it was announced that 11 councils across England have taken 1,700 hectares out of the green belt for new housing development in the past year.

This is not only the largest annual loss of such land since records began 20 years ago, but also just the tip of the iceberg.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England calculates that up to 10 times this amount could be released for housing over the coming decade, thanks to various local plans now being finalised. At least 41,000 dwellings are proposed on safeguarded land in Yorkshire alone.

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This news will be welcomed by free market commentators, who continually claim that we should build on the green belt to relieve the housing crisis.

We often see arguments that large parts of the green belt are not green, and should therefore be developed, or that we should build new settlements around existing suburban transport hubs.

It was even argued in The Times recently that the Government should sell such land to developers, and use the proceeds to build its own affordable housing in unspecified locations.

But this misunderstands and misrepresents the purpose of green belt. It is so-called not because the majority of it is green, but because it prevents urban sprawl. Apart from swallowing up valuable farmland and wildlife, urban sprawl has disastrous and costly consequences for the environment. It leads to increased car use and the neglect of urban areas. In America, the lack of a green belt has led to cities such as Los Angeles spreading the equivalent distance of Leeds to Manchester.

And, above all, allowing urban sprawl will still not provide the affordable homes we need in the places we need them.

By contrast, the benefits of preventing urban sprawl are numerous, clear and proven.

First, it encourages efforts to develop new housing in well-connected urban areas that are in need of regeneration. CPRE found last year that we can build at least a million new homes on previously developed land across England, including 57,000 in Yorkshire and the Humber. This is a real opportunity to breathe new life into wasted and often derelict land.

These brownfield sites, which are closer to economic and social opportunities and amenities, should not be marginalised because housing developers want to pick the choicest land for development.

Second, protecting the green belt means that we continue to provide countryside next door for 30 million people. Maintaining easy access to lung-clearing, eye-opening, heart-soaring countryside improves our health and wellbeing, and offers rural activities and fresh air for urban dwellers.

To emphasise this, and mark the 60th anniversary of green belt this year, CPRE has launched the Our Green Belt campaign to encourage the public to share their enjoyment.

Third, this land often plays a vital role in food supply. As around two-thirds of green belt land is farmed, we are able to provide our urban areas with easy access to food; this is something to bear in mind when climate change and global population growth are increasing pressure on land, and that we grow less than two-thirds of our own food.

Whirlow Hall Farm near Sheffield is an exciting example of the green belt’s potential to supply food and recreational opportunities for our cities.

Fourth, it provides the opportunity to redevelop some of our scruffier urban fringes for community benefit. Yesterday’s quarries and wastelands are today’s nature reserves and woodlands, as can be seen in the Dearne Valley Green Heart project. If we weaken our commitment to green belt, we lose these exciting opportunities.

So, the question persists: Does the Government need to enhance green belt protection?

The loss comes as Ministers emphasise the importance of the green belt. The Prime Minister recently declared his Government will “always protect the Green Belt”, while Business Secretary Sajid Javid has emphasised the importance of not building on it.

Yet the Government’s pronouncements are not being matched on the ground. Councils, under pressure to boost the supply of housing, are allocating more and more green belt sites for development claiming “exceptional circumstances”. In this way, housing targets are met, and the Government’s apparent commitment to green belt remains intact.

We need the Government to be more specific on the circumstances in which boundaries can be changed through local plans.

We need to see the Government challenge local authorities to refuse damaging developments in the green belt. And we need to utilise public funding to increase the quality of and access to green belt.

The green belt is neither a cause of, nor a solution to, the housing crisis. It prevents sprawl, protects countryside and encourages the development of new affordable homes in well-connected urban areas. For these vital reasons, we must continue to protect – and enjoy – our green belt.

Paul Miner is planning campaign manager at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).