A few years ago I was delivering some training with a colleague who told a little anecdote about a parks officer he had met who opened the parks in his patch in a random order – zigzagging across the Borough and taking over an hour to open them all.
My colleague asked him why he did it that way and didn’t just start at one end of the borough and work his way to other end. The parks officer didn’t really know but told my colleague that this was the way he had been trained to do it. Further investigation found that the officer’s predecessor as parks officer had children and used to combine opening the parks with the school run and thus did it that way to suit him.
This story came back to me during the last week as I was thinking and tweeting a little about housing and particularly this country’s green belt policy.
In 1935 when the Greater London Regional Planning Committee proposed the creation of a green belt they did so: ‘to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space’.
A worthy aim from the 1930s has morphed into a policy which, at least in London, preserves a green space that is twice the size of the city itself and is far from providing a ‘reserve of public open spaces and recreational areas’. In some areas the green belt stretches out 35 miles across and protects basically the whole of Hertfordshire.
Anyone setting up a new city would not seriously think that the green belt in London is sensible policy making. Even if we accept that all of the objectives of the policy are still correct, and I’m almost certain they aren’t, the policy itself does not meet the needs. Let’s look at them in turn:
1) Preventing urban sprawl
A belt of a mile or two across would manage this and you certainly wouldn’t require one 35 miles across to do so.
2) Providing recreational spaces
The greenbelt is miles away from where most people live and large chunks of it are not used for recreation or public open space but instead used for farming. Indeed, a third of London’s green belt is used for high-intensity farming which is far from the ideal pictured in the 1930s. A sensible policy would be to focus on protecting parks and open spaces within the cities or near the towns rather than an arbitrary big chunk of green space around the city that no one can actually use.
Likewise, we should be protecting farming land but as the country with the third lowest building density in the EU there is plenty of space for farming around the country and it doesn’t really need the green belt to protect it.
3) Preserve rural England
This is where the policy gets particularly ridiculous. Houses will have to be built somewhere so not letting them be built in a big arbitrary belt around a city is simply going to push them elsewhere and be built on other parts of the countryside. Protecting greenbelt just pushes the problem around rather than ameliorating it.
What makes this historical policy worse is the unintended, and extremely negative, consequences of it. Our green belt policy has led to insufficient housing in and around our cities and thus in turn rising house prices, an escalating housing benefit bill and has helped consign people to poverty.
If there was any other Government policy which was contributing so significantly to making a negative impact on the lives of its residents it would have been dealt with years ago. The fact that it hasn’t is a failure of epic proportions – I’ll leave a discussion of exactly why this has happened for another day.
Far more importantly, you may wonder what we should do instead.
We don’t have to abolish the green belt in its entirety – the political interest in protecting arbitrary NIMBY policies will never fade – but we can make some small changes to it to improve our housing situation and to design a policy that is far more appropriate for the country as it is now, rather than as it was 40 or 80 years ago.
The Adam Smith Institute (http://www.adamsmith.org/research/reports/the-green-noose/) have predicted that allowing building on green belt land that is 1 mile from a train station only would allow for 1 million more homes to be built around London. (It is worth thinking for a moment about a policy so ill-conceived that you cannot build on land that is within ten minutes’ walk of a train station – stations being a service which primary function is to take people to and from work. If you can’t build homes there then your policy really is bad).
At the same time the Government could carry out a fundamental review of the green belt and once they have resized it down to a few miles or so across introduce new rules for any building that takes place on land previous allocated as green belt. This could include the guarantee of gardens for all developments, protected parks, meadows and other open spaces for every area and a maximum density for each development. Each one could be negotiated locally but with an explicit expectation that the point is to provide high quality housing for people to live in.
A policy like this would protect the spirit of the green belt policy but without the historical, illogical and arbitrary position that the current policy has left us with.