England is disappearing rapidly as New Labour presides over the concreting over of the countryside. Since 1997, over 1,100 hectares of Green Belt have been lost each year and at least 45,240 homes – equivalent to a city the size of Bath - have been built on Green Belt land.
The purpose of the Green Belt, introduced in the 1955, was to give local authorities not only a means, but also an incentive to halt urban sprawl and leave a clear definition between communities. Green Belt land was formerly viewed as sacrosanct, but these crucial “green lungs” – and the contribution they make to ecology and environment - are being rapidly eroded.
The Council for the Protection of Rural England reports that the Government’s own planning inspectors are undermining Green Belt policy, with statements that suggest they no longer view it as a permanent designation, but subject instead to shifts in market demand, for example for housing and air travel.
At present, local authorities are preparing their regional plans, and so far 10,000 hectares of Green Belt have been put forward for development. A key reason for seeking to lift Green Belt controls is to deliver to developers the kinds of green field sites they find cheap and attractive for house building.
The CPRE reports: “Speculators are dividing up dozens of areas of Green Belt land with stakes and fences, and marketing them in small plots to people, often overseas, who want to make money from building on them. When time passes with no prospect of the land being developed, the land often becomes overgrown and blighted by fly-tipping – thus increasing the pressure to develop the land in order to tidy it up.” Since 2004 the total Green Belt area has shrunk in East Anglia, and in the East and West Midlands.
Paul Miner, CPRE’s senior planning campaigner, says despite minister’s pledges, “in reality the Green Belt is being seriously eroded”. He warns: “Too much development has already been permitted, and some Government Inspectors appear to be interpreting Green Belt policy in their own way. This is making a mockery of the permanence which Green Belts are supposed to have.”
Whilst paying lip service to protecting the Green Belt, the Government is sending local authorities a different message. For example a Treasury-sponsored review of land use planning called for more frequent reviews of Green Belt policy. And, the CPRE reports, between May 1997 and March 2004, 162 planning applications referred to central government for decision, were permitted.
In addition, the Aviation White Paper supports airport expansions that would take place on 700 hectares of Green Belt. This month the government agreed a development plan for the East of England aimed at delivering a minimum of 508,000 additional dwellings up to 2021 and Green Belt reviews will be held throughout Hertfordshire, much of it designed to facilitate expansion at Luton and Stansted airports.
The hypocrisy of the government knows no bounds. In April, ministers announced their shortlist of proposed “eco-towns”. Of these, CPRE has found that two are likely to involve significant development in designated Green Belt: Rossington (in South Yorkshire); and Weston Otmoor (near Oxford). No wonder local people are up in arms about these far from ecologically-sound proposals.