Fyson on... Long-overdue review

Long-overdue review that offers genuine chance of balanced approach to green infrastructure.

It looks as though there is to be a root-and-branch review of green belt policy at last, carried out by no less an authority than the government's statutory adviser on landscape.

Natural England's board met last week and resolved to adopt a pre-scoping paper on housing growth and green infrastructure. Its chairman Sir Martin Doughty chose to lead the public announcement by declaring that "the time has come for a greener green belt".

The tactic is a wise one, offering the prospect of higher-quality green environments in designated green belt areas. But the objective is also to establish a fresh approach to greening new development, including housing on some green belt land. Doughty urged a solution to England's housing needs that "puts in place a network of green wedges, gaps and corridors, linking the natural environment and people". This will reduce the extent of the conventional green belt.

Around two-thirds of the three million houses that the government wants to build by 2020 are bound to be on greenfield land and urban extensions are one way in which these will be planned. But the hope seems to be that conservationists, outraged by the use of such land for housing, will be placated by improved management of green areas around towns and an emphasis on green provision in the built environment.

Ominously, however, the Campaign to Protect Rural England is already manning the barricades. Natural England must get the government's support in facing down such groups.

Planners will also have to revise their ideas. The convention for half a century has been that the green belt's settlement-shaping functions do not depend on an attractive green environment. The argument is that any areas girdling towns and kept free of development can prevent urban sprawl, protect the countryside and the character of historic towns and even help urban regeneration. But there is not much evidence that this is actually the case, such has been the growth in commuting distances.

However, any breaks in the vital inner boundary of existing belts and the acceptance of green wedges and corridors penetrating urban areas will have a profound effect on future settlement structures in a relatively densely settled country. Containing urban England will no longer be a primary goal.

The resulting mixture of town and country, allowing for a properly housed population, may well be a better environment for people, nature and landscape. But Natural England will have to be alive to the political implications of the reforms on which it has presumably been asked to embark.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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