According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England there are plans being prepared up and down the country that could take enough land out of our Green Belts to build 80,000 houses in the coming years. Sounds a lot doesn’t it? Until you realise that if we are all to be housed in a decent manner we need 230,000 new homes to be built every year for as far ahead as we can reasonably foresee.
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent blog-posts looking at big city regeneration schemes which will see thousands of high rise apartments being built. So it seemed about time for me to get out into the countryside again and have a look at some of these threats / logical alterations (take your pick) to the Green Belt, where houses with gardens (still the home of choice for most of us) can be built.
A quick check of CPRE’s research showed Christchurch and East Dorset to be the most far advanced with their plans. So what better than a nice ramble through the pastures and pine woods north of Bournemouth to have a look for myself? The two Councils are preparing a joint Core Strategy which will take enough land for 3000 homes out of their Green Belt. And despite local opposition from the likes of Keep West Parley Green they are sticking to their guns. With the public inquiry scheduled for next year, the latest set of amendments to the Plan (currently out for consultation if you’re interested) has only reduced the number of homes they propose by about 180.
The South East Dorset Green Belt is a relative newcomer to the party, having been established in 1980, but as I got the bus out through the interminable sprawl of the Poole suburbs I could see why people wanted it. It was 25 minutes before I saw the first field, but a few minutes later the bus crossed the meadows of the Stour valley (mostly under water after all the recent rain), to the pretty town of Wimborne Minster. Given their tendency to flood, these fields will maintain a permanent gap between Poole and Wimborne whether there is a Green Belt or not. And Wimborne was where I was to start my 8 mile walk to West Parley, past half a dozen of the proposed housing sites.
I know Green Belts have official purposes – preventing urban sprawl, stopping towns coalescing, and assisting urban regeneration, all by keeping land permanently open. But these aren’t necessarily the most important justifications for those of us that live close to them (yes – this includes me I admit).
These unofficial purposes of Green Belts can include – arguably in increasing order of importance: the lifting of the spirits created by the view from your living room window; the pleasure of striking out on foot from your front door and being in the midst of fields and trees in a few minutes; the feeling that you are secure from the alien hordes who would otherwise be marching across the countryside towards you in the form of houses, flats, roads and shops to invade, colonise and subdue you; and the fact that Green Belts are meant to be there for ever, so no one has the right to take these things away from you. So changes to them do rather tend to generate strong emotions.
For landowners it is all rather different. For them a review of the Green Belt is the opportunity for another spin of the roulette wheel, to see whether this time the ball will land on their site, and at last, after a speculative investment made many years ago that has been haemorrhaging money ever since, they can finally clean up and cash in their chips. But what does it all look like on the ground?
Wimborne Minster is an historic town which was a thriving centre of religion and commerce when Bournemouth was but a glint in a thousand boarding-house landladies’ eyes. And as I started my walk the square looked lovely with its new Jubilee paving, and the minster watched benignly over proceedings as it has for centuries. The first site I found that was to be released from the Green Belt for new housing was the football ground. Soon it would be goodbye to the old sloping pitch and hello to a purpose built ground on the other side of town with an all-weather training pitch and a new clubhouse – just the sort of decision a successful small town needs. The club’s groundsman, who had played on the current pitch in his youth, told me he couldn’t wait.
The second site, bigger this time, was certainly proper green fields, with hedgerows and trees, but situated as it was on the north side of town it was separated from Cranborne, the next place up the road, by about 10 miles. So hardly a key site preventing the coalescence of settlements. It all felt very sensible. And while Keep Wimborne Green may have a presence on the internet, I didn’t find a single poster or placard opposing the plans.
I left Wimborne up a sunken lane between thatched cottages, feeling like I was heading into real countryside. But two minutes later I was back in amongst houses, and so the pattern repeated for the next three hours. The edges of Colehill, Ferndown and West Parley are typical urban fringe landscapes – nurseries, horse paddocks and heathy pine woods, with bungalows nestling up unmade lanes which are prey to low-level fly tipping. For a good hour, I passed no more sites to be released from the Green Belt. I’m sure the selection process was thorough, with its 300 page Sustainability Appraisal, SHLAAs and SHMAs, but I saw plenty of suitable candidates which hadn’t been chosen. Which will of course provide plenty of work for Planning consultants come the Public Inquiry.
The next site proposed for release that I reached was Holmwood House – today fields of grazing horses next to a new up-market Edwardian pastiche estate with Hardyesque street names. Presumably this had been excluded from the Green Belt itself in an earlier Plan – but now it seems the residents of the likes of Everdene Close won’t be Far from the Madding Crowd for much longer.
And the sites at West Parley were much the same – urban fringe horse paddocks, and a flat field on a very busy road with houses on three sides of it. A sensible place to build a new estate, particularly with the plan for a foodstore in one corner opposite the existing shopping parade. Yes, the sites are on the Bournemouth side of town, but once more the flooded water meadows of the Stour were there to prevent the dread outcome of coalescence with its larger neighbour. And here again I saw no physical evidence of objection – despite the fact that this had been the epicentre of opposition, with a march on the Council offices back in June and pieces on TV and in the local paper.
So for me the South East Dorset Green Belt is more than capable of surviving this proposed incursion into it. I had a very nice walk passing as many of the sites as possible, and even then I spent most of my time in pleasant (if unspectacular) green surroundings which won’t be affected. The Achilles heel of course is that word “permanence”, which has been in Green Belt circulars since the signing of Magna Carta (more or less), and is the one bit of Planning policy most suburbanites know.
But Christchurch and East Dorset, Cambridge and a few others have challenged this notion head on, and the truth is that if other local authorities made the same response to the evidence as they have done this is a scenario which would be repeated across southern England. And maybe that is right. After all, it isn’t a case of high rise apartments in city centres or redevelopment of old industrial sites or new estates on green field sites. It is all of the above. Unless we’re going to ban all immigration, take a leaf out of China’s book by adopting a one child policy and colonise Mars by 2023 of course. So good luck to any others brave enough to take the plunge. Just so long as the next spin of the Green Belt roulette wheel doesn’t leave the ball resting outside my living room window that is.