30 October 2012

Blindly protecting the countryside is not sustainable

The development of our green belt and countryside areas is back on the table, as the government casts around for ways to kick new life into 'Plan A'.

I grew up in prime green belt country on the Kent and Sussex border, and loved escaping from school to explore the rolling hills and woodland that characterises the High Weald. Twenty years on, I still find myself jumping on the train out of London at the drop of a hat. Alighting at stations like Cowden, with its narrow country lane the sole connection to the outside world, is a magical experience for reluctant city dwellers like me.

Sentiment should not guide policy, however. Our rural areas must help deliver the growth we need, and being precious about blindly protecting the countryside is itself hardly sustainable. Indeed the word ‘Weald’ means woodland in Old English, yet today many of the most scenic vistas are open heath, the area’s trees felled long ago to fuel furnaces that smelted iron ore dug up from deep holes. Four hundred years later these pits have become tranquil ponds. The few remaining woods became the setting for Winnie-the-Pooh’s adventures, innocently belying the area’s history as the centre of the English arms industry.

So my frustration at how easily the development of our countryside has slid back onto the growth agenda is not based on a simple aesthetic objection to concreting the urban hinterland. It lies in the ongoing failure to understand the intrinsic value of protecting the green spaces around our cities and further afield, and our inability to look into the future and picture the sort of country we want to live in.

CPRE’s name – the Campaign to Protect Rural England – hints at the nature of the problem. Protecting the countryside would be a great deal easier if people understood the fundamental reasons that make the organisation’s work so important. At the risk of sounding glib, the organisation’s cause might be stronger if they were the Campaign to Value Rural England. As anyone who has been arguing for protecting school playing fields will know, once the worth of something has been shown, the local community tends to be pretty strident in its desire to defend it. Unfortunately the general public’s understanding of countryside has for too long been tied to “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” and the like, which does little to stem the remorseless march of the developer.

And so we need to make the argument that green belt land is fundamentally good for the economy, and counter the plethora of misguided headlines for the so-called growth agenda. Limiting urban sprawl focuses capital on regenerating existing land in our cities, which would otherwise require clumsy state intervention, or be left to fester as unsightly wasteland. The countryside also gives much needed space for cityfolk to blow off steam, go rambling, have pub lunches, and so on. And it provides livelihoods for people in agriculture who feed us, which is important given the looming global food security challenge – something those pushing the growth panic button seem to have forgotten. We need to remind the public of these arguments because there is an awfully large amount of money and time being spent to ensure people are persuaded otherwise. The litmus test is whether we can reconnect people who live inside the M25 and M60 with the green areas immediately around them.

Which brings me to the future, and – I suppose – the past. There is huge pressure on the government to unleash a wave of new house building, and the narrative being spun ties this firmly together with economic growth: the prospect of a house building windfall already has landowners and home-builders licking their lips with unseemly fervour at the profits to be made. By now you will be unsurprised to know that green belt land is being considered for much of this, with 11,000 new homes on the North West green belt that lies around Liverpool and Manchester. 7,500 houses are to be built on protected land around Bristol and Bath, and the picture for the rest of the country is equally discouraging: Surrey is unlucky enough to be getting yet another wretched hotel and golf course development.

The problem Britain faces is that our experience of house building has been scarred by some of the terrible projects that were constructed in the mad dash to replace housing stock lost to the Luftwaffe and post-WW2 slum clearances. Shoddy housing schemes like Ronan Point and the Hulme Crescents mean we are not keen on the idea of dense urban living – hence the spread outwards. Fortunately the postwar municipal disasters are balanced by countless Peabody housing associations that demonstrate how successful communities have been created by good Victorian design, and even North Kensington’s notorious 1960s Trellick Tower has been recently redeemed. Yet the damage has been done. Politically the vision of compact urban living would appear to be a much harder sell than the ubiquitous two up/two down semi complete with double garage – which sits in complete contrast to the apartment lifestyle so popular on the Continent.

Changing the British perception of housing and the environment will take time – something that the Downing Street strategists probably don’t have a great deal of. But if we fail to recognise the value of greenbelt land and develop it for short term economic gain we are simply placing people further away from the city centre, and expecting them to pay extortionate prices for petrol or a season ticket – as well as waste their lives with the unnecessary grind of commuting. We are designing pointless expense and untold misery into people’s lives, and consigning the taxpayer to decades of road widening and dual carriageway improvements. That’s not a Britain that I want to live in, and looking at my fellow travellers on the rare occasions I take the train early in the morning, I know many would agree with me.

First published by Platform 10 on September 3rd, 2012