Reviewing the Green Belt: disaster or distraction?

22 July 2014

By Peter Thompson, Chairman, Oxford Civic Society

This article was first published in the OCS newsletter “Visions” in July 2014.

The debate about the Green Belt is distracting us from the real issues.

Many of us involved in planning issues believe that we are in something of a Titanic situation in Oxfordshire. The course we have been following for the past few decades is heading for a number of environmental icebergs. These include energy availability and cost, climate change, air pollution, health issues, traffic congestion, social inequality and despoliation of the landscape we hold so dear.

To confine the debate to the arrangement of the deck chairs when what is desperately needed is a change of course, seems naive and complacent.

Green Belts were introduced for five specific purposes:
• to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas
• to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another
• to help safeguard the countryside from encroachment
• to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
• to support urban regeneration by encouraging the re-use of derelict and other urban land.

Green Belts have, by and large, been effective in achieving these objectives, but there are legitimate criticisms:
• they have not restricted the sprawl of many towns and villages;
• they have not protected all countryside from encroachment; 75 per cent of Oxfordshire is not Green Belt, and sprawl has encroached into green landscape in many locations;
• many towns and villages in Oxfordshire are very historic, yet their setting has been compromised by not having Green Belt status;
• the sanctity of the Green Belt has put pressure on the development of every available open space in towns. The Green Belt policy puts no value on green spaces within the city.

Furthermore, there are many allowable exceptions to the restrictions on development in Green Belt: roads, railways, stations, car parks, pipelines and pylons included. In fact, an ‘exceptional circumstances’ concession already allows more or less anything to be built in Green Belt except housing!

Consequently, some authorities are already proposing industrial development in Green Belt, at, for example, Oxford Airport and Begbroke. Even with housing, some councils are qualifying their reassurances that they do not intend building in Green Belt, by adding ‘so far’, or ‘yet’ to their statements. The question does not appear to be ‘if’ they will sanction building, but ‘when’.

All planning, whether policy-making or taking decisions on individual development proposals, is required to consider the consequences of the actions, under the headings of environmental, social and economic effects. So the negative consequences of Green Belt policies cannot be ignored:
• increased pressure to build on non- Green Belt land, rural and urban
• separation of residential areas from workplaces, increasing commuting, traffic, congestion and consequent environmental and economic effects
• increased demand for road-building
• exacerbation of housing problems – availability and affordability.

A 60-year-old decision

Decisions on planning issues are supposed to reflect a considered balance of these consequences. But consequences depend on circumstances. Can anyone argue that the circumstances of our environment, our economy or our society are the same now as they were in 1955 when the Oxford Green Belt was designated? In truth, the circumstances of our lives are radically different.

To assert categorically that no re-assessment should ever be made of the effects of 60-year-old decisions and their appropriateness for current and future circumstances, seems, at best, highly complacent. Green Belts have been successful, but not entirely so and how they will measure up for the challenges of the future needs consideration.
Let me be clear – no one in the Society concerned with planning issues has ever advocated building on the Green Belt. But we believe that planners need much more than reliance on the rigid retention of potentially-obsolete rules.

Planning a smarter future

If our environment, including our landscape and countryside is not only to be protected, but to be better protected, and if our communities are to be enhanced and successful new ones created, we MUST have the very best planning. Simply fighting a rearguard action against development and trying to enforce historic constraints, while perpetuating the fragmented, dysfunctional planning we muddle along with now is not likely to produce a successful or visionary outcome.
That means planning for the wider Oxford region and it means planning for transport needs at the outset. It means answering difficult questions, like should we sacrifice economic growth for environmental protection? It means detailed design and it means consistency.

This is what our Oxford Futures report is all about. This report, compiled by Nicholas Falk and launched at the end of March by the Lord Lieutenant of the County, Tim Stevenson, summarises the conclusions of four high-level debates we sponsored last year. In essence the report calls for the principles of ‘smart growth’ to be applied and for difficult decisions to be made in a coordinated way. You can download a summary and the full version from this article.

Ironically, in Britain we have some of the best-regarded urban planners and architects in the world, while here in Oxford our two universities teach and research urban design for the communities of the future. Can we not have the debate and leadership we deserve to deliver a better future for our own city, our county towns and our villages? We’d be delighted to hear your views: you can leave a comment below.

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