Belt Up Minister!
The papers are alive with the sound of a beleaguered Chancellor scrambling for quick fixes to stimulate the economy, boost growth and declining popularity ratings. Top of this agenda is the reform of the planning system (again!), the so called 'enemy of enterprise' where the Green Belt has been singled out for special attention. Here speculation is rife that Green Belt zoning will be relaxed with major housing developments becoming national infrastructure developments thus taking the decision away from local authorities in favour of national government. In a huge sop against localism it signals the government's true intent and political posturing over allowing local people a real chance to influence their futures.
In previous comments I myself have questioned the effectiveness of green belts as tools for sustainable development and I make no apologies for this. Their one size fits all approach (why not use fingers, bananas, wedges or shapes that reflect regional needs)stifles some innovative land uses; their selective existence around some of the larger cities in England and Scotland (none exist in Wales) means that their spatial impact and extent is limited. Crucially, they are reactive zoning tools rather than positive agents for environmental and land use change.
However, the idea of knee jerk reactions such as selective relaxation of green belt being considered by Osborne creates huge uncertainty ; the real enemy of enterprise. What is required is a long term vision of the kind of England (Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland) we want and then to collectively develop the 'roadmap' towards achieving it with all government departments singing off the same hymn sheet. At present we lack this and I reflect on the opening ceremony of the Olympics when the green and pleasant land being destroyed under the industrial revolution was actually Osborne and Co. presiding over land grabs to boost not only the economy but falling popularity ratings. Unfortunately, the National Planning Policy Framework does not provide any meaningful spatial vision and hence now we see panic responses that have no place in effective spatial planning.
The problem is that all my research shows that a single minded pursuit of economy, society or environment is fundamentally flawed as we need integrated solutions that address all three components otherwise we get 'disintegrated' development. For example, the house building issue has dominated the press yet when we look closely we are equally vulnerable to food and energy and climate crises that could halt the revitalisation of UK PLC. It is quite simple we need to join up programmes across sectors (environment, education, transport, economy, community etc) and scales from global to EU to national, regional and local to achieve this. In so doing there is a role for a better understanding of the different services the environment provides to revitalise what we mean by 'development' and 'enterprise'.
Therefore, instead of Osborne- led knee jerks we should have joined-up government responses across all departments on the future direction of UK PLC. It may well be that the Green Belt should be reviewed and I would welcome that, but not in order to allow more housebuilding but rather to look at what works and what doesn't and also to ensure that high quality green spaces are woven into the built fabric of our urban and rural environments. Also to ensure that such green spaces are positively managed to agreed outcomes that benefit the economy and society, whether it be for flood protection, energy crops, biodiversity or food production; or ideally a combination of all.
I suggest that Mr Osborne should 'Belt Up' and think about the long term interests of planning and the economy otherwise he will be in for a very bumpy ride.