Sir Jonathon Porritt calls for re-think on greenbelt.

Image: Example of new housing development around Cambridge.

On tonight’s repeat of Radio 4’s ‘Analysis’ Sir Jonathon Porritt suggested it is time to look less emotionally at the idea of the greenbelt and the issue of building much needed housing upon it. Porritt has spent more than three decades highlighting green issues, from his days with Friends of the Earth to advising today’s government.

This debate rears its ugly head again as the government invites comment on its Housing Green Paper. To quote;

This Housing Green Paper seeks views on the Government’s proposals to increase the supply of housing, to provide well designed and greener homes that are supported by infrastructure and to provide more affordable homes to buy or rent.

We invite responses by 15 October 2007 which should be sent, if possible by e-mail to:

It is thought that another 250,000 – 300,000 homes a year will need to be built in order to take some of the pressure out of pent up demand for housing and to relieve high real estate prices. People are living longer, more are chosing to live alone and divorce rates aren’t going down anytime soon.

As Sir Jonathan Porritt points out the NGOs have drawn a line in the sand on the issue of building on the greenbelt. NGOs like the CPRE are quick to book an interview slot with Radio4 as soon as they get a swiff of possible consideration of building upon greenbelt land. Like some demented Jack-in-the-box they pop up each time to trot out the same middle England message; ‘not upon our green and pleasant land!’ As Porritt points out, not all of it is so pleasant and should indeed be considered for home building.

The issues for housing today in the UK are really about quality of new build, the better use of empty housing, building up again but with better quality apartment living, creating better community living in new developments, government ensuring infrastructure is supporting these new developments and Nimbyism cutting off its bloody, selfish head. Oh, but lets leave the flood plains out of it shall we.

This entry was posted in Development, Economics, Housing, Politics, Population, Rural communities, Sustainablity, Transport, UK, Urban. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Sir Jonathon Porritt calls for re-think on greenbelt.

  1. Pete Smith says:

    Interesting you mention CPRE. They tried to rebrand themselves with a new title* yet retaining the same acronym, but it really hasn’t worked. They are still largely NIMBY, and the few dissenters who want to rethink attitudes towards green belts and ‘the countryside’ aren’t making headway. The recent departure of the head of communications may not have been entirely unrelated.
    I’ve got a lot of time for Jonathon Porritt, he talks consistent good sense. If he’s saying that rural England isn’t all pristine, clean and green, he’s right. I grew up in the country, and I can confirm much of it is messy, noisy and full of as many social problems as the meanest inner city. CPRE’s view of the countryside as a tranquil, beautiful recreation park for the affluent urban elite is unsustainable and increasingly irrelevant.

    *Council for the Preservation of Rural England – Campaign to Protect Rural England. Spot the difference.

  2. matt says:

    Value you thoughts on this Pete, especially with some of the inside observations you’ve been able to obtain on a certain NGO. Yes, I think Porritt is right to challenge the evangelists when it comes to protecting the greenbelt because there is a grey area to this argument.

    I still think more high rise is needed within cities. Not the nightmare fifties & sixties scenario but more of what today’s materials, construction methods and technology can give, with more clued up community planning and sustainabilty issues sewn in. Tower living can be sexy! And lessen pressure on the greenbelt. Now if the CPRE actually tried to come up with solutions….

  3. earthpal says:

    I certainly don’t object to affordable and sustainable houses being built on greenbelt if there is a need. People need somewhere to live and the homelessness figures we have in this country are immorally high. No-one has the right to deny people a place to live.

    If imagination is applied, sustainable social eco-housing communities can be built, with small lush gardens, little parklands for the kids to play in and even tiny allotments.

    What I object to is road building and airport expansions taking up the greenbelt.

  4. matt says:

    > What I object to is road building and airport expansions taking up the greenbelt.

    I suppose they could teleport themselves to their new ‘eco-homes’. πŸ™‚

  5. earthpal says:

    Matt, Won’t the access roads needed for the estates just be added to the existing network of roads?

    Do we really need to widen the motorways or build more runways? We add fourth and fifth lanes to our motorways and what happens? They’re soaked up by vehicles and congestion and emissions are not reduced.

  6. matt says:

    OK, didn’t realise you were talking motorways. Some A roads would probably be needed and motorways like the M11 extended. The A12 in the same area of the country needs desperately to be upgraded atleast part of the way into a motorway.

    So, to be realistic I’d say yes, motorway building is needed in some areas and with some developments to support and connect new communities to the rest of the country’s infrastructure. It depends of course where these new homes are built and how close they are located to existing cities and towns.

    The Cambridge expansion area or corridor is a good example though. A number of towns are planned but no matter how ‘eco’ they are in themselves, many of these people will still need to work elsewhere and many of these will do so in London. Improving the train network is the best choice. But roads will still need improving for goods transit and local activity. Not everyone can get about by bus and bicycle.

    The UK is crowded! Sixty million people is a hell of a lot of folk for this size of country.

  7. earthpal says:

    Yes, sounds fair enough Matt. Roads that accomodate new housing estates are necessary – with the need for a good transport infrastructure.

    One worthwhile project would be pedestrianised communities with amenities – schools, jobs, business, recreation etc. close by. T’would lessen the need for road travel, would reduce accidents and would reduce emissions.

    Other than that, as you implied, regeneration is one solution and the road networks will already exist.

  8. matt says:

    Have you heard of the organisation ‘Living Streets’ ? I think I’ve mentioned them before. They aim for more of what you talk about. One thing they do which I know you’re familiar with is ‘Walk to School Week’.

  9. Pete Smith says:

    One final word on CPRE. They’re caught between a cleft stick and a hard place really. They get a lot of mileage out of their 80 years of campaigning and their role in the 1947 planning Act, the green belts and the National Parks. They have a static membership that is aging, who they don’t want to lose by dumping their past ‘glories’. They have achieved a lot, but they need a major rethink, which will cause inevitable pain.

  10. Pete Smith says:

    The influence of the planning system and green belt policy on the siting and design of new settlements is not doing the ccountryside any favours. Opposition groups chant “Green belt, green belt” like a mystic mantra. Eventually, inevitably, the government intervenes to allow development which is usually large, high density and highly disruptive to environment and local residents. As a ‘bonus’ 😎 infrastructure is usually inadequate and badly thought out.
    We need a change of mindset where development is seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. How about expanding village planning envelopes to allow limited new build on the outskirts? Advantages: use of existing infrastructure, utilities, roads; small developments cause less disruption, can be carried out by local builders, and can be more easily designed to blend with local styles and materials; villages would be revitalised, with more chance of the local church/school/shops/pub staying viable.

  11. matt says:

    > They have a static membership that is aging, who they don’t want to lose by dumping their past β€˜glories’.

    Sounds like the Tory Party

    > How about expanding village planning envelopes to allow limited new build on the outskirts?

    Populated by Tory voters.

    Moral of the story; don’t shoot a fox, shoot a Tory voter!

  12. Pete Smith says:

    Well if you want to deal in stereotypes ….. πŸ™‚

    It’s true that country folk tend to vote Conservative because they are by nature conservative. The rural ‘less well off’, who would seem to be natural Labour voters (but not New Labour), vote Conservative because they see them (rightly or wrongly) as a party with greater understanding of rural issues. They’re sitting on the other side of this great perception gap between town and country. Hence the mass of downtrodden rural poor who turned out for the Countryside Alliance demos alongside their toff neighbours.

    It’s a hearts and minds thing …

  13. Dave On Fire says:

    a Dave among the pigeons…

    The answer to the housing crisis is not simply building more houses. Certainly, it seems likely that population growth has outstripped the growth in house-building over last few years, but nowhere near enough to explain the shortage of affordable housing. This primarily a class warfare issue: look at the rapidly increasing number of second and third homes left empty, and look at the pathetic lack of council housing. Tax the rich, house the poor…

    It also seems that you’re being a bit cavalier about the greenbelt. I understand that 100% inflexibility can be counterproductive, but I don’t think the regulations were ever excessively strict. The current talk of cutting them back seems mainly to be led by (a) corporate builders who stand to make money and (b) a government desperate to solve the housing crisis without offending the rich.

    There’s another environmental aspect to building on the greenbelt too, beyond the obvious destruction of natural habitats. Namely, it’s the creeping spread of suburbia – with its lawns and driveways, its gadgets, its reliance on cars and commuting – which is dependent on massive energy usage. Never before the oil age has anything like suburbia existed, and if we are serious about drawing the oil age to a close then we will have to prune them back to more efficient, centralised settlements. I’m with you, Matt, we need decent, comfortable, environmentally sound complexes – not necessarily rising all that high, but certainly not spreading out over miles and miles of countryside.

    Before I go on my merry way, I’ll quote the great and already sorely-missed John Prescott: “The green belt is one of New Labour’s proudest acheivements, and we are determined to build on it.

    Oh, and since there’s no mainstream party who will look out for the less-well-off, reverting to traditional loyalties is kind of default behaviour. Is it really any more rational for the workers to vote New Labour than for the peasants to vote Tory? It’s a hearts and minds things only in the absence of any substantial alternative.

  14. matt says:

    Damned right, tax the second and third home owners. And why we are at it; tax the super rich bastards who pay no tax, forget fucking Trident and stop sending our troops into oil wars.

  15. Dave On Fire says:

    for a start…

  16. earthpal says:

    As always Dave, you make some fair and valid points and I mostly agree with you but regarding the – “decent, comfortable, environmentally sound complexes – not necessarily rising all that high . . . “, sounds fair enough but some poor and socially deprived families placed in dreary concrete complexes dream of little gardens where their toddlers can play safely, where they can grow plants, shrubbery – maybe even some vegetables. It doesn’t seem fair that only the better off get to live in leafy suburbs with gardens and green views.

    Absolutley, second homes need to be dealt with and I totally object to builders being allowed to develop on greenbelt if they are going to build large and expensive properties with huge driveways to accomodate the gas-guzzlers that only the well-off can afford but I would support the discriminate use of greenbelt land for smaller, affordable modest eco-housing communities with schools, playing fields, amenties etc. if some imaginative Green considerations are applied.

    Yes, let’s get the existing empty properties retrofitted first but I don’t think we can rule out little eco-communities on some greenbelt land. It’s not the poor that are driving gas-guzzling 4X4’s, living in huge, co2 emitting houses and taking two or three flights a year but their need for housing won’t go away.

  17. Dave On Fire says:

    Hi Earthpal,

    I agree, dreary concrete blocks are not the answer. But what about this? In your classic suburban avenue, each house has two large-ish gardens, one at the front which is at best purely ornamental and at worst a paved personal car park, plus a back one which is rarely used and usually incorporates a sizable paved patio, and a ginnel of some sort to link them. You could redesign this (if the cars were less necessary, as is the case with centralised developments) to take up a quarter of the space while still providing as much pleasure.

    You may also be right that we can’t completely rule out greenbelt building, but we need to be careful. Are the current restrictions really too harsh, or is this simply the easiest option for a rightwing govt (and its corporate lobbiers) with little interest in preserving the common wealth?

    Incidentally, another aspect of the housing crisis is that the poor actually do tend to consume more energy than the better-off (though not the very rich, obviously, who trump everyone), to heat inefficient low-quality and often rented accomodation. Compelling landlords to look after their stock better must be a major part of any housing reform (and, addressing the concerns enumerated above would probably reduce the number of people renting anyway).

  18. Pete Smith says:

    Suburban gardens (front and back) are not just about our pleasure, they are a vital wildlfe resource. Many of our species, on the back foot from industrial agricultural practices, have taken up residence in and adapted to suburbia. The stag beetle, for example, while nationally endangered, has a stronghold in the south-eastern fringe of London.
    This is why many environmental groups are fighting infill development on what the developer calls ‘brownfield’ land, even though it is very green and the last vestiges of the countryside the suburb was built on 70 or 80 years ago.

  19. Dave On Fire says:

    Fair enough, and I gather that with all the rumours of CCD people are also being encouraged to attract the bees to their gardens. And you’re right that the cities need to be more than pure concrete too, so brownfield is not without a certain value.
    But all that being said, I don’t think suburbia is viable, in the long term, without the abundant energy supplies that characterised the 20th century.

  20. matt says:

    BedZed is a good example of eco, space saving housing but, we do in the UK need to re-visit the concept of ‘blue-sky’ housing. The surrounding green areas can be developed in fantastic ways, not just the odd tree planted as is done now. Gardens, swimming pool, tennis courts, underground parking, children’s play areas can all be accommodated to make up for apartment living. Done well, people will grab at the chance to buy into these, especially from a secure living point of view and I don’t mean from a ‘gated community’ perspective.

  21. Pete Smith says:

    “I don’t think suburbia is viable, in the long term, without the abundant energy supplies that characterised the 20th century.”

    Dave, to my mind it depends on what kind of suburbia you mean. The post-war American model is a complete disaster of course, on so many levels, and will not survive without massive energy inputs, oil in particular. For a fascinating and entertaining account of the chequered history and gloomy future of the American suburb, I recommend James Howard Kunstler’s ‘The Geography of Nowhere’.
    We do things differently here. The distances involved in travelling between home/school/work/shops are generally much smaller. We still have a viable rail network. Our suburbs were developed earlier, before the real arrival of mass motoring, so local shops and public transport are still within walking or cycling distance.

  22. Dave On Fire says:

    Yeah, it’s all shades of grey of course. Which is fortunate, because replacing our whole housing stock in a hurry would be both really hard and pretty carbon-intensive in its own right. But with regards to future develpments, it certainly seems worth keeping sprawl in check and not just in the interests of greenbelt preservation.
    Sounds like my kind of book, I’ll keep an eye out. OT, how does the Coffee House rate Monbiot’s Heat? I thought it was brilliant, but then I’m a big Monbiot fan and so prone to being overwhelmed by environmental doom-and-gloom that I really needed to read something along those lines just to make the problem accessible again.

  23. earthpal says:

    Dave, that BedZED development looks great! It’s absolutely the kind of thing needed. Utterly inspiring. I hear what you’re saying in that the poor use more energy because of inefficiencies and I’ve argued for the availability of government grants to be awarded so these people can eco-retrofit their homes. I totally agree with you about the role and responsibility of the Landlord. I know too many horror stories from friends who have fallen victim to the callous landlord.

    Pete, re. the gardens contributing to the wildlife – absolutely. I had that in mind when I mentioned the little eco-communities. As for the people who have front and back gardens, it’s a shame that many are (as you once wrote here) having their lawns dug up for concrete paving.

    Matt, I like what you’re saying but would they fall under social housing type schemes? I mean it would be a shame if they all became trendy and exclusive resedential areas because that’s when the property values shoot up thus excluding our poorer citizens who also need housing. I like the BedZED project as much as anything because of its commitment to sustainable social housing.

  24. Dave On Fire says:

    I agree, Earthpal, to look at environmental housing and social housing as separate issues is misleading and counterproductive. BedZED definitely looks like somewhere I’d like to live, however it has been up for 4 years now and as far as I’m aware there are no plans to roll out similar developments. Most new housing is still likely to be large estates eating up our valleys – and BedZED deserves better than to be a “model factory” behind which other anachronistic developments can hide behind.

    As well as grants to homeowners, it has been suggested that the regulations concerning home renovations be toughened up, so that whenever a house is renovated it gets an efficiency makeover too. The cost of refitting a house for efficiency can go into the tens of thousands – but the cost of incorporating efficiency measures into a renovation that’s going ahead anyway is an order of magnitude less, and we need to get both landlords and homeowners to go the extra mile. To counteract any disincentive to renovating that these extra requirements might entail, we could envisage a discount on stamp duty.

  25. Pete Smith says:

    A lot of people are going to look a bit foolish when oil supplies start to run out, they can’t afford to run their car(s), food prices start to skyrocket as we grow more and more fuel crops, and they can’t grow anything in their garden because the topsoil’s been replaced with paving.
    The conversion of the streetscape into a car park has other implications apart from environmental. It’s a social disaster as well, as it removes most opportunities for casual unplanned interaction between neighbours. Activities such as weeding, mowing and hedge-trimming may be suburban cliches, but they do (did) offer the chance to meet and talk to one’s neighbours. Now it’s just drive the car off the street, park as close to the front door as you can, and go inside. The private space of the front garden has been surrendered.
    For an interesting read on these issues, try ‘Life between buildings: using public space’ by Jan Gehl. If you can find a copy, it’s out of print now I think.

  26. Pete Smith says:

    Re alternative treatments for green open space. Interesting article in last Sunday’s Telegraph about the growing trend for new developments to include a ‘village green’. This is shared public open space for social activities, allotments, ponds for sustainable drainage and wildlife.

  27. matt says:

    Hi earthpal

    Yes, tennis courts that I mentioned I guess lead one to think I meant apartments for the rich but, no that’s not what I had in mind. I really don’t see why tennis shouldn’t be accessible to all for example.

    The original co-op housing development was way before BedZed and that’s called Coin Street, which is located on the South Bank of the River Thames here in London. Their story is totally inspiring and their architecture is superb. They even control the Oxo Tower as part of the property. And they run festivals, art galleries ….

  28. matt says:


    Excellent link. Very inspiring and I’m personally interested in the mention of the Open Space Society because I’m involved with a ‘friends group’ with our local green space. So good to see developers taking these initiatives. Of course the value of the green space land they’re losing for housing development will have it’s housing value shared around the prices on the built houses. The developers won’t be losing money on it!

  29. matt says:

    Hi Dave

    Haven’t read ‘Heat’ but I do have a lot of respect for Monbiot. He comes across very well on news debates and certainly doesn’t take any shit from his opposite numbers, whom ever they may be.

    With two little kids I never really seem to have the time to read, or at least be able to concentrate long enough to do so. Kids, who seem to have split second memories, are very good at bringing their mums & dads down to their level. πŸ™‚

  30. the Grit says:

    Hi y’all,

    I must say that this post, and the comments to it, are, in my opinion, in serious contention for your best work. While I suspect that we have different definitions of green belt, here it consists of farmland and undeveloped land, it’s still most interesting to read your views on an issue which we, in this area, are just starting to wake up to. Good work!

    the Grit

  31. matt says:

    Oh shucks, that’s so sweet Grit. Here … just for you. πŸ™‚

    Btw, clicking on the link to your blog via The Coffee House stats page produced a ‘block’ from my council internet administrator. It labelled your site ‘pornography’ ! Have you been talking about Mandy from Memphis again Grit ol boy. Now I told you getting up to no good like that is just going to end you up in trouble …. πŸ˜‰

  32. Pete Smith says:

    I thought that review of ‘Debbie Does Des Moines’ was a bit saucy.

  33. I agree with Grit that this is a fascinating discussion. You are probably aware of the Cambridge Futures project that has been looking at alternative spatial and transport planning models for accommodating population and employment growth. The study covers much of what you have been discussing here. But what neither you nor – as far as I am aware – Cambridge Futures addresses, is exactly how to control urban sprawl.

    Whether you increase density to try to keep growth inside the greenbelt, or allow leaping over the belt into designated areas, or one of several other options, there will always be pressure to spread. Most planning authorities simply draw a line in the mud and say “none shall pass”, only to find (as did Monty Python’s knight) that the politicians simply cut off their limbs and continue on their merry way. Toronto is dealing with precisely this issue right now, and I am seeing the same thing in South Africa. It’s damn near universal.

    A proposed response – not mine, sadly – is to stop pretending that urban and rural are completely unrelated beasts. There is a relationship there, and it is growing stronger. Pete Smith’s comment hints at this, but it’s true for the human species too. Planners need to grasp that, and instead of trying to create a wall to be scaled, use the relationship to shore up farmland on the urban fringe and dissipate the pressure to sell to developers. Not the holy grail, to be sure, but it would help. Here’s my post with some links on the topic.

  34. matt says:

    Hi Rory

    Yes, I’m aware that Cambridge is trying hard to come up with workable solutions. You’re right that urban and rural life shouldn’t be treated so separately as now and that more development should be allowed around villages. However village folk often resist this idea strongly. City folk on the other hand are possibly used to change, either that or the scale of things around them means they simply don’t have a chance to oppose.

    (I’m on holiday for a week now btw, so leaving blog in Pete’s capable hands. Catch up soon).

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