The green belt is not only a way to curtail urban sprawl but a resource for improving the quality of life. However, the potential to maximise the health, educational, economic and ecological benefits of the green belt is not being realised.
Natural England's recent green belt review (Planning, 12 October, p1) is being wrongly interpreted, claims the agency's head of recreation, access and transport Terry Robinson. "The green belt is seen as a policy tool to restrain development around towns and cities. But we want to move the debate on to how it is used," he explains. "There are many tools for assessing and enhancing the green belt's contribution to sustainability and we want them applied more effectively."
Natural England is pressing for a fresh approach to managing housing development that will give greater emphasis to green infrastructure. This approach is gaining greater currency at a regional level, particularly in growth areas, although progress on planning and delivery at district level is lagging behind. Several regional assemblies, city-regions and local authorities are developing green infrastructure strategies as a prerequisite for development and regeneration.
Imbalance identified in growth area funds
But there are regional disparities in green infrastructure spending. The government has agreed that £38 million - ten per cent of its growth area fund - should be spent on such projects from 2004 to 2008. The Thames Gateway is receiving £20 million for a "green grid", while £4 million is being invested in the River Nene Regional Park in the South Midlands and around £1.5 million in several projects in Cambridgeshire (see panel).
But few funds are being targeted in the north. A prospectus put forward by organisations in the Liverpool and Manchester city-regions argues that if ministers and the northern regional development agencies are serious about overcoming wealth differentials, a commitment to green infrastructure must be equal across all regions as a central facet of sustainable economic growth. It should not be concentrated in the southern growth corridors, it insists.
The draft regional spatial strategy for the North West requires local authorities to prepare green infrastructure strategies. Yet its public examination panel questioned this policy, suggesting that it required further justification. A guidance document published in September aims to help implement the policy. It highlights the need for local plans to identify where green infrastructure is functioning well and needs maintaining or what can be done to improve it where necessary.
Earlier this year, the West Midlands Regional Assembly published a green infrastructure prospectus highlighting the need for investment outside major growth areas. Drawn up by the consultancies TEP and Alison Millward, this document warns that much of the region's green infrastructure "is disjointed and isolated physically and functionally". It proposes green networks to link urban areas with the surrounding countryside and deliver a range of benefits for the public and wildlife.
The assembly sees this programme as a way of helping tackle deprivation. A budget line is being included for green infrastructure in the region's implementation plan. "Our aim is for green infrastructure to be funded through the regional tariff alongside other social and transport improvements," explains strategic adviser to the assembly Chris Blakely.
Just like other, more concrete forms of infrastructure, methodologies have been developed to identify needs and maximise benefits from investment in green infrastructure. These start from a set of objectives for green space, followed by mapping local provision and an assessment against recognised standards. Opportunities are then identified to meet outstanding needs using brownfield and greenfield audits.
A case study of Stoke-on-Trent shows how provision can be mapped, conclusions drawn and strategies developed. The city has a higher than average amount of green space but it is low in quality and underused. Some areas have a concentration of health deprivation and a shortage of accessible green space. The prospectus suggests that the council could identify opportunities for access to currently inaccessible green spaces, improve links to accessible ones and focus health initiatives on them.
Quality of fringe land comes into question
The East Midlands Regional Assembly's green infrastructure strategy, which is already being integrated into a single regional strategy, highlights the poor quality of much urban fringe land. "In Lincoln, low-quality agricultural land comes right up to the backs of the houses. But it is not very attractive and is actually inaccessible," notes Francis Hesketh of TEP, who was part of the team that worked on the strategy. Local amenity groups are now buying up such sites to create woodlands, he adds.
The region's growth points have started drawing up green infrastructure strategies with the support of the DCLG. The Three Cities growth point, which includes Leicester, Derby and Nottingham, is looking at finding different social and economic uses for the green belt. "It must be made to work for its living - it cannot just be seen as a restraint on growth around the cities," argues growth point manager Guy Wisbey.
An initial assessment of the area shows that it is poorly wooded. The initiative is looking at buying up sites or developing partnerships with landowners to create accessible green space. Strategic river corridors are also being improved. Wisbey points to the lack of parks in the conurbations. The Victorians developed large numbers of city centre parks but these were not included in later suburban developments, he points out.
Millward maintains that the challenge is for local authorities to take forward regional green infrastructure strategies and get them embedded in local development frameworks. Robinson indicates that Natural England is developing guidance on how the green belt should be tackled in frameworks. He recommends that councils work with developers and the voluntary sector to bring about schemes on the ground. Natural England is offering to help councils to develop such initiatives, he remarks.
Green spaces and the green belt play an important role but they have to justify their existence more explicitly. They need to demonstrate their contribution to a wide set of social and economic objectives as well as offering an attractive physical environment. The methodology to identify these potential uses has been refined and the strategies exist. Now they need to be taken forward in local plans and funding programmes.
Green Infrastructure - A Prospectus for the West Midlands Region, The North West Green Infrastructure Guide, Green Infrastructure for the Liverpool and Manchester City-Regions - A Manifesto for Change and Cambridgeshire Horizons Green Infrastructure Strategy are all available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc
CAMBRIDGE CASE STUDY
Massive household growth in the Cambridge sub-region can be seen both as an opportunity and a threat for existing communities. "Much will depend on the extent to which existing infrastructure, including green space, can be enhanced to support the proposed scale of growth," warns a strategy issued last year by Cambridgeshire Horizons, an agency set up by local authorities and private developers.
The strategy seeks to develop wildlife corridors to link existing habitats. It identifies 20 sites, not only in green corridors but also related to major expansion areas and settlements. Cambridgeshire County Council green infrastructure development officer Helen Ryde says the aim is to increase biodiversity and make it more accessible. She cites the example of Cambourne, where a country park next to the settlement is one of the features that residents like most.
Early projects have fostered improved management of spaces such as the Cambridge Preservation Society's Coton Country Reserve. Here, a 10.5km network of paths and public rights of way is being developed to link with amenities and paths in the surrounding area. Funding is also helping agencies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust buy up and extend sites.
Ryde admits that there are some doubts about the strategy's planning status. South Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire District Councils have endorsed it, while Cambridge City Council has adopted it as technical guidance. But strategic standards for open space had to be removed from the area action plan for the Northstowe village development at the request of the public examination panel. The strategy cannot yet be converted into a supplementary planning document because it has not been subject to public consultation.
ST HELENS CASE STUDY
A variety of local agencies such as the police, the health authority and the local strategic partnership are involved in taking forward a green infrastructure strategy for St Helens. It was prepared using 96 different datasets, helping to demonstrate the correlation between levels of deprivation and access to green space. By identifying a range of benefits, team managers can prioritise projects.
Almost 50 per cent of the borough is green belt or green space, but the strategy shows a low level of usage. The local development framework now aims to ensure that such sites' potential is maximised, with implementation being co-ordinated by the Mersey Forest.
Mersey Forest green infrastructure planning officer Susannah Gill says the initiative is looking at measures to increase usage, such as signage, and tackling police concerns about safety. The health benefits of open space are being heavily promoted, with the primary care trust working with young people to promote the use of such space. There is particular emphasis on expanding woodland along transport corridors to raise air quality and improve areas in otherwise desolate locations.