Hayes in the House – The Green Belt
William Blake - in the much loved hymn Jerusalem – portrays England as a ‘green and pleasant land’, evoking images of rolling hills, fertile fields and misty fens. This vision of gentle, natural beauty enables our immersion in tranquillity, lifting our spirits and securing our wellbeing.
As a conservative, I can think of few more important missions than the protection of our countryside. During my campaign to safeguard and expand parks and green spaces, I learned just what a difference accessing natural beauty can make to mental and physical health; green places and open spaces contribute to a reduction in dementia, loneliness and type 2 diabetes, saving the NHS millions of pounds a year. Our sense of community cohesion too is bolstered by accessible green belts, which restrict development and, in juxtaposition with what we build, provide breathing space – a reconnection with nature.
In England’s great hymn Jerusalem, Blake also writes of ‘dark, Satanic mills’. Yet bizarrely, some are now aiming to concrete over what is lush and lovely in pursuit of ubiquitous, ‘dark’ development.
The Campaign for the Protection for Rural England highlights the threat to England’s 14 Green Belts which cover 12.4% of land in the country, providing a breath of fresh air for 30 million people. First proposed in 1935 by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee, the green belt was designed to provide "a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space". In 1955 the Conservative Minister for Housing Duncan Sandys reiterated this belief, saying: ‘For the well-being of our people and for the preservation of the countryside, we have to do all we can to prevent the further unrestricted sprawl of the great cities.’ Preventing unimaginative and unrelenting urban sprawl by providing a buffer between towns and countryside is as important and worthwhile today as it was then.
Most development should be on brownfield land and all should be lovely. None should be out of scale with the place it’s sited. Contrary to establishment prejudice, there is no need for us to build millions of properties on the green belt in order to increase the supply of housing. Instead, by ensuring that current provision is best used we could free capacity – in essence, that means better matching properties with the needs of their occupants. For example, it is estimated that a million older people live in just a small part of large homes with which they struggle to cope, yet there is no fiscal incentive for them to downsize and, very often, inadequate numbers of more suitable nearby homes. Government could enable the adaptation of more houses to make them appropriate to meet the needs of elderly and less abled people. Similarly, rather than gargantuan new developments in already overcrowded parts of Great Britain, it would be much wiser to add incrementally a small number of new properties to existing hamlets, villages and towns, with most development happening in cities. We must ensure gradual, gentle change, not allow brutal, wholesale development.
Meaningful measures must be taken by Government in order to conserve our natural heritage. A legislative commitment to the protection of beauty, coupled with the recognition that many more unique and distinct areas of rural Britain being recognised as ‘national parks’ would be a welcome first step. Why not establish a national park at the heart of the Fens?
Simultaneously, each of us can and should take action to ensure that our local environment thrives. Initiatives such as ‘Keep South Lincolnshire Tidy’ are the embodiment of worthwhile investment in our surroundings, ensuring a place of pleasure and pride for all who live here and all who visit.
England’s unique precious, ‘green and pleasant’ landscapes instil a sense of timeless national identity and local belonging, providing millions with access to natural capital on their doorsteps. The preservation of our open countryside and the protection secured by green belts are essential if we are to build a New Jerusalem.