Green belts have been called the lungs of Britain. They prevent urban sprawl. They force planners to identify land within a city that could be regenerated for housing. They offer recreational opportunities for urbanites to walk, cycle, picnic and enjoy fresh air. They establish city boundaries and maintain the character of the countryside and stop cities from merging. And they allow for much food production. They make up 13% of England---“too much to ignore and too little to squander.”
But Green Belts are under threat. Despite government policy, about 1,000 hectares per year are disappearing under development to roads, airports, universities, parking lots, sports venues---and conspicuously, to houses. In 2003, 250 hectares of Green Belt were sacrificed to build 2,100 homes. Housing accounts for the loss of about 10 square miles of countryside a year in Britain. Building on Green Belt land has soared 60% since Tony Blair’s New Labour Party came to power. Ironically, it was the post-war Labour government of Clement Atlee that secured Green Belt protection with landmark town and country planning legislation.
A regional plan for the East of England suggests tens of thousands of homes be built on Green Belt. 273,800 new homes are being planned for Yorkshire over the next 15 years, threatening swathes of the region’s Green Belt. Additionally, there are proposals to build 10,000 new homes on Green Belt land in Herfordshire. And more plans to build on Green Belt land could mean 25,000 new homes around St. Albans. There are also plans to build an 8,000-home town on green field land on the north-eastern outskirts of Norwich. Thankfully, the proposal for 3-4,000 new houses on the edge of Suffolk town have been returned to the drawing board after public rejection.
What drives this encroachment? In a word, immigration. Britain’s population grew by 2.6 million in the two decades after 1981, but in the next two decades, there will be an additional 3.4 million---60% of whom will come from outside the country, or 170,000 annually. That percentage will rise over time. In the next 17 years the U.K., with rising population, will need another 1.5 million homes. The Adam Smith Institute calls for the construction of one million of these homes on Green Belt land. There is an obvious connection that can be made. More immigration. Less Green Belt. It’s that simple.
Yet typically, for the staid 80 year old guardian of the English countryside, The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), it is not so simple. Like the “respectable” environmentalists of North America, they can’t—or won’t---see the Elephant Standing-in-the-Room. They simply accept that England will have a growing population and shrinking household sizes, so it will therefore need more homes. As a solution they propose to create more affordable housing, end the speculative demand for housing, use land more efficiently, encourage urban regeneration and the better use of derelict or under-used “brownfield land”. They describe the waste of urban land as a national scandal.
But realistically, would such efficiencies absorb the kind of numbers that have been cited here---170,000 newcomers a year? And how would CPRE propose to deal with James Lovelock’s nightmare of tens of millions of climate change refugees fleeing the new deserts of Europe to clamber on board the English lifeboat? Where would they put all of those people? Just how many unused parking lots and deserted buildings are there in British towns and cities available for conversion to house those millions? How could anything of the natural habitat of the English countryside survive such an onslaught?
Wouldn’t it be prudent for the CPRE and other “respectable” environmental organizations to finally develop a back-bone and face up to the fact that ultimately, protecting Green Belts is going to come down to sealing British borders and stabilizing British population levels?
What Steve Hoecker said of America, applies with equal force, I think, to the United Kingdom,
“It does no good to preach that we should not destroy habitat or that we should reserve more open space. When push comes to shove, we are going to clear more land to build houses, plant more acres to crops, build roads to carry an increased traffic load, create more jobs as well as a host of other habitat-destroying activities in order to provide for an ever-increasing number of people. Each year we convert more wildlands and open space to human-dominated landscapes to provide for human needs. It can be no other way as long as our populations continue to grow. We continue to attack the symptoms, not the underlying cause.” (from “When More is Less”, Hunting Magazine, Dec.1996)