Perhaps the most bizarre thing about UK planning is that it assumes that all of the UK green belts should be subject to exactly the same policies.
What is also bizarre is that whilst most of our major cities are “lucky” enough to have a green belt many conurbations and cities such as Teesside, Leicester, Plymouth and Hull mysteriously escaped. I know not why but shall come on to the effects later.
But are green belts actually the same? Well let’s have a look at the green belts in two of NLP’s office locations – namely London and Newcastle. Policy is identical in both locations but are the green belts themselves similar?
Let’s start with Tyne Bridge and Tower Bridge. Both iconic central landmarks. From Tyne Bridge to the green belt it’s 3.1 miles. The shortest trip from Tyne Bridge to the outer edge of the green belt is 4.2 miles. In London the distances are 10.2 miles and 22.1 miles. Going towards Gillingham it’s 42 miles from Tower Bridge to the green belt outer edge.
From Tyne Bridge the distance to the outer edge going north or south is usually about 5 – 7 miles.
Green belts clearly have a completely different scale and function in different places. It seems as though the green belt in Tyne and Wear acts as an extremely tight collar preventing the sustainable and much needed expansion of a small conurbation well served by high quality public transport. As such new development in recent decades has tended to be located further from the conurbation thereby clogging up the radial and orbital roads.
By contrast it’s obvious that the situation is completely different in London. There the green belt acts as a necessary control on the expansion of a global economic centre under huge development pressure across 32 boroughs.
Let’s compare what happens within and beyond the green belt. In London there are actually around 100 settlements above 5000 population within the green belt – all with their own expansion pressures. And within 2 or 3 miles of the outer edge lie, menacingly, many major towns including, Chelmsford, Gillingham, Crawley, Maidstone, Southend, Woking, Reading, Bracknell, Aylesbury, Slough, Milton Keynes and others.
In Newcastle the nearest major settlement to the north, is Edinburgh 120 miles away. To the west is Carlisle 60 miles away. In between are a few mining villages, rural market towns and many, many sheep. To the east is sea and to the south Durham City (with its own green belt) 15 miles away and Teesside about 30 miles away.
It seems faintly ridiculous to assume the Tyne and Wear conurbation (or its green belt) is in any way similar to the Metropolitan situation. Yet for 30 years the conurbation has not achieved its population or commercial objectives because new development proposals on the city edge have always hit the green belt buffer. Such development either doesn’t happen or is forced further out. Yet the conurbation is actually in desperate need of more population to sustain its infrastructure, its local economy and local services.
And what of those “unfortunate” areas without the green belt. If we are going to start with nearby conurbations let’s look at Teesside – Middlesborough to be precise. Here the effect of PPG3 and the recession was to make their brownfield-led local plan strategy unviable. This in turn led to huge housing undersupply. So earlier this year they chose to release 5 major greenfield housing sites to arrest the problem. A very tough and difficult decision but one which would have been inconceivable if they had “enjoyed” a green belt.
And what of those towns and villages beyond the green belt. Many, in the 80s and 90s were swamped by the “pig ugly” estates referred to by Mr Boles. Why – simply because they were easier targets for housebuilders given the lack of green belt. Yes some had no public transport links to the nearby city. Yes they were often more sensitive in landscape terms and yes they were often in locations unaffordable to lower income families. All that didn’t matter because they didn’t have a green belt. Whilst PPG3/PPS3 then put a stop to greenfield development this glance at recent history informs us of the potential future effects of implementing NPPF (in order to address the housing crisis) yet remaining inflexible on green belt.
The green belt debate seems to be hotter than ever. I say yes to strong green belt protection of London if that is seen as best. BUT we need a mature discussion now about a policy approach which is strangling some northern and midlands cities which are desperate for growth to create jobs and address the housing crisis. Nowhere else in Europe are regional cities routinely placed in a development strait jacket called green belt. Indeed the 2011 OECD Economic Survey of the UK concluded that green belts are a “major obstacle” to economic growth and should be replaced by “land use restrictions which better reflect environmental designations and free up land for housing whilst preserving the environment”
Bravo to those Councils who are addressing the issue. The big question over the next couple of years is whether they are addressing it fully enough. Especially when we remember that the extent of green belt in England increased from 0.7m hectares in 1979 to 1.65m hectares today.