Bell on... Body blows to a sacred cow

Bravo Natural England! For the public body charged with stewardship of England's countryside, and still in its first year of business, to accept a policy paper that says development on the green belt may be necessary represents a courageous start.

The news from the National Planning and Housing Advice Unit that population is set to rise even more steeply than was forecast underscores the soundness of Natural England's approach. However, the mere hint that planning's sacred cow may be at risk is enough to bring out opponents. The Campaign to Protect Rural England is already gearing up with a scaremongering riposte to Natural England on the front page of the Daily Mail.

We cannot have planning policy dictated by those housed behind their drawbridges, clutching a vision of a rose-tinted England. Neither can we have greedy landowners rewarded for distressing green belt landscape. And when it comes to population, a wide, transparent debate is needed to weigh up pros and cons that are by no means straightforward.

What has become a grey tourniquet should be reinvented as a series of eco-zones, green wedges and breaks, where quality rather than width is the hallmark. Eco-zones could penetrate into the heart of cities to link city with countryside. Not every brownfield site is suited to development. A reasonable green space should be retained to keep our cities cool. Sustainable development could be planned along enhanced public transport corridors to meet higher housing targets, with mixed-use schemes to keep journeys to a minimum. To build a better brand is a formidable challenge but the prospect is exciting. We must be equal to the task.

Graeme Bell is a Town and Country Planning Association vice-president and chairman of trustees for the Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation.

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