31. 10. 2007

The Green Belt

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Who would have thought that staid old Natural England, one year into its new persona, would have come out with such a fantastic pot-stirring initiative to celebrate its first birthday – by calling for a fundamental review of the Green Belt. In its announcement there is more than a hint that Green Belts have had their day, and that we should come up with a radically different approach. Dovecot duly disturbed, with doves duly wheeling around in consternation, outraged at such unthinkable heresy.

Actually, I’m a bit envious. Somebody had to do it, and I would have quite liked the Sustainable Development Commission to get stuck in on the future of Green Belts – precisely because it is so important, so controversial, and so rich from a sustainable development perspective. Too bad.

But the fear that everyone has (and it’s a wholly legitimate fear) is that the only reason for reviewing the Green Belt at this moment in time is to make life easier for volume house builders who want to make life easier for Gordon Brown who wants to make life easier (theoretically) for all those people who can’t get their first foothold on the housing ladder – by building more than 3 million new homes.

And the Government’s current appetite for all those new homes is so rampant that these fears are more compelling now than ever before. Housing Minister Yvette Cooper is keen to dispel those fears (regardless of Green Belt issues), and powerfully hits the “sustainable and affordable” button on every available occasion – which is great. But there is more than a suspicion that Treasury might hear those same words but continue to treat them as little more than linguistic baubles.

To be fair, Natural England has tried to reflect those fears in the way that it would like the Review of the Green Belt to be carried out. The obvious thing to do (to ensure the kind of quality debate we need) is first to review the need for a review – in other words, just how broke is the current system before anyone sets out to fix it. How well has it achieved its objectives? How good a job is it doing in terms of nature conservation, recreation, amenity value, and simply preventing development. Without so much as a mention of new houses, this would really begin to highlight the nature of the debate that is needed.

But good for Natural England. A pot well stirred!

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