Protecting the green belt from redevlopment is not the same as protecting the English countryside. If we work sustainably, we can create a better, greener future

As marketing stunts go – though it probably wasn’t thought of one at the time – “green belt” must rank up there with Coca-Cola turning Santa Claus’ clothes red and the Dutch breeding orange carrots. A lot of the planning-enforced collar around our cities is anything but green – redundant factories; the “edgelands” between motorway junctions; bare scrub.

That is not to say there aren’t parts of it which should be kept free of development – the “Meriden gap” between Birmingham and Coventry, a remarkable slice of Shakespeare’s “Forest of Arden” close to the industrial sprawl of the West Midlands, for example – but in many ways it is a relic of a particular way of thinking. Many planners in the early- and mid- 20th-century, influenced by the garden city movement, were in fear of genuinely big cities. Once they had reached a preordained size, growth should be directed elsewhere, to new towns. Thus everyone would get to live within reach of the country, and “megatropolis” would be avoided. As Jane Jacobs noted, the idea was that everyone would get to live in a utopian version of the English country town.

The wider philosophy has gone, but the green belt remains. Perhaps only the NHS is more sacrosanct. Blame our obsession with the countryside; ever since the industrial revolution, we have looked at our grimy, chaotic cities and decided that they had nothing to do with the real England, which could be found beyond. Thus an assault by developers on the green belt can be interpreted as an assault on our national treasure and, indeed, our national character. Undoubtedly, many who live in the green belt near towns have moved there from those towns and urban areas are, in most cases, probably still associated with poverty or discontent. Every new house built, every inch of countryside given up, surrenders more of their locality to the horror that the English have been trying to escape from since Victorian times. As the great historian Asa Briggs pointed out, the best society of American or European cities were trying to improve them; their equivalents in Manchester or Leeds were trying desperately to get out of them. If we had really tried to design our cities better, perhaps things would be different.

Given this background, it is perhaps unsurprising that the press reaches for the old cliché of “concreting over the countryside” whenever relaxing planning controls is discussed. This is despite the fact that 90% of the country is not urbanised, and even in the south-east, even when London is taken into account, the figure only drops to 85%. Moreover, in a modern, urbanised world it is simply not on for an industrial nation to try to stop its cities from growing. For too long we have tried to fight economic gravity and direct growth away from the most successful places – London and the Oxford-Cambridge arc, for example. The result has been the ridiculous situation in which we build homes where few people want to live, and provide virtually none in successful, growing towns and cities. This problem is even more untenable given the general shortage of housing, the small size of new housing, the inability of young people to afford a home of their own and the accumulation of property wealth by older owner-occupiers. The OECD is only the latest body to point this out.

It is unsurprising that, increasingly focussed on the need to promote growth, the coalition has turned its attention to the green belt. Relaxing controls, however, will only have an effect in the long term. House builders have almost universally stated that they have no intention of increasing production; after all, they will only build what the market will absorb, and that is defined by the constraints on mortgage providers. The problem in the debt market is not loan-to-value ratios or high deposits, it is limited capacity, and until that changes it will be virtually impossible to increase publication. Moreover, buyers and developers alike are cautious, wary of what the future holds. When real wage growth returns, when unemployment drops, when the mortgage market frees up – this is when any loosening of policy will have concrete effects. But that could be five years away. Bare in mind that it also takes time for capacity to recover after the devastation of the credit crunch.

Indeed, forcing the planning system to release too much land too quickly could have the perverse effect of reducing development in the short term. The whole edifice of development and house building in the UK is built on the premise that sites are in short supply. If land were suddenly to become more available, then bullish expectations of increases in value over the next few years might become unfounded.

Equally, it is to be hoped that the current onslaught on the planning system does not end up in a free for all that benefits nobody. The experience of Ireland, ruining its landscape with ugly, isolated developments and then its economy with overbuilding and overlending, is a salutatory one. If any relaxation of controls leads to a sprawl of ugly, unplanned development, as in the Sun Belt of the US, then there will be a kneejerk reaction, as there was in the 1930s. There has never been more need for well-planned, sustainable urban extensions on the continental model.

This, of course, assumes that the Conservatives take on their core vote in the Home Counties and other rural areas protected by the green belt – Warwickshire, Cheshire, Oxfordshire, West Yorkshire. When the green belt policy was introduced in the 1950s, the English countryside was a much more diverse place – there was a genuine rural workforce, and agriculture was a more significant part of our economy. Now, outside the most fertile and/or isolated areas, it has become, more than ever, where the wealthy live, their leafy, spacious environment maintained by the planning system. And, most importantly, the Conservative vote has increased in the countryside at a much faster rate than elsewhere over the past twenty years.

Nevertheless, protecting the countryside is not just about the environment and property prices of a few affluent rural dwellers. It is a genuine amenity, used by millions of urbanites, and a key part of English identity. On and off, I have been reading Oliver Rackham’s magisterial history of the countryside. Contrary to received wisdom, most of our landscape – outside highly enclosed counties such as Northamptonshire or areas that remained wilderness late, such as the Weald of Sussex – is incredibly ancient. There may be slightly fewer trees, but most of it probably looks pretty much as it did during pre-Roman times. The field patterns, the woodlands, the lanes, most can be traced back to the activities of distant ancestors. It is not a wilderness - there is not one patch of it untouched by mankind - but rather it is a living patchwork created by thousands of years of consistent human habitation. Given this background, it is hardly surprising that the cause of landscape protection reaches into the cities.

The past sixty to seventy years have seen dramatic change and genuine disruption. Rackham points to forestry, the changing of the course of rivers, the destruction of hedgerows, the grubbing up of orchards. But house building is barely mentioned because on a restrained scale it does not and cannot “concrete over the countryside”, because houses do not take up that much space. The lapwing and corncrake have not left our shores because they are fleeing from Taylor Wimpey or Barratt. Wildlife loves suburban gardens more than intensively farmed fields. And that is before we even get to the massive social changes that have made the countryside, at least the bits near cities, a ghetto for the rich and middle-aged, an English exurb gated by planning controls.

Those who love the countryside should promote the planned, sustainable extension of our cities. As well as preventing sprawl, it will relieve pressure on the countryside, reduce the increasingly obscene and untenable social divide between town and city, and in the long-term, produce a country that is more at ease with itself. The alternative is very bleak indeed – economic atrophy and an increasing division between constrained, degraded cities and an idyllic, equity-rich countryside.

Jon Neale is a partner at King Sturge