The rural economy faces collapse in the wake of foot and mouth. Meanwhile, our booming cities are ever more choked for space. It's time to reopen the debate about building on the green belt, argues Marcus Fairs
You wouldn't want to go for a picnic in the fields east of Cambridge. Prairie-like expanses, devoid of birds and flowers, stretch to the horizon. Agribusiness has created this featureless landscape; the same industrial mindset that stands accused of causing a series of agricultural crises, from BSE to foot and mouth, that have shaken our view of the countryside.

Yet this dead country is also the green belt: that celebrated, mythical place designed to fence in greedy cities that would otherwise seek to sprawl on forever. Protesters would fight to preserve this land from the bulldozer; newspapers would campaign against any incursion.

Such a battle may not be too far away, as planners in Cambridge are proposing to build 22,000 homes here as part of an extension of the city. Cambridge council, desperate to meet IT-led industrial demand, has examined every option and concluded that the green belt is the best place to put the houses.

To Peter Studdert, director of planning at the council, the green belt is not something to get sentimental about. "Cambridge is special because of the way the landscape penetrates the town," he says. "The landscape itself is among the dreariest in the country. There's probably as much biodiversity in my back garden as in 100 acres of Cambridgeshire farmland, which has been hammered by chemicals." Cambridge's proposal throws up two points that challenge common assumptions about the countryside. First, that a landscape that cannot be enjoyed by people is useless. Second, that the appearance and usefulness of the countryside can be improved by developing it. "A lot of our landscape is completely man-made anyway," Studdert adds.

His views are part of a groundswell of opinion that argues that our unthinking urge to preserve the countryside has gone too far. This school of thought argues that foot and mouth, and the debate on the future of the countryside that will inevitably follow, offers an opportunity to re-examine the received wisdom that greenfield development is intrinsically undesirable.

"The problem is that the whole debate has been framed in a very vague way that says it is bad to develop greenfield land," says Sir Peter Hall, professor of planning at University College London, and considered by many to be the leading planner in Britain. "This goes back subconsciously about 50 years, to the post-war years, to a time when we felt we needed all this land to feed ourselves.

Brownfield development is desperately trying to save land in the countryside that demonstrably isn’t needed.

Sir Peter Hall, professor of planning, University College London

There are good reasons to maximise brownfield development but why are we so desperate to attain higher targets for this? It's desperately trying to save land in the country that demonstrably isn't needed." While there has long been a deep-seated emotional opposition to rural development, it is only in recent years that policy initiatives have enshrined the hallowed status of the countryside.

The first page of last year's urban white paper, for instance, says towns and cities have to be improved "to relieve the pressure for development in the countryside", and the parallel rural white paper – which promises to deliver bustling, sustainable rural communities neatly sidesteps the issue of rural development. Rather, it aims at "reducing pressures for greenfield development through more successful cities … and a planning framework which continues to safeguard our countryside while allowing rural communities to thrive".

Yet neither document asks the obvious questions: What is the countryside for? What are we protecting it from? "The countryside has become a shibboleth," says housing consultant Roger Humber, the former chief executive of the House Builders Federation. "It's very, very silly. The countryside today is an industrial environment; a working environment. If it ceases to be a working environment in which you grow food, you have to think about what it is for. Nobody, least of all housebuilders, wants to be building in remote areas miles from jobs and services. But there is a very strong case for reopening the debate over greenfield development, particularly on sites adjacent to transport corridors and overcrowded areas, especially in the South-east." So pervasive is the desire to protect the landscape that it drives much of the thinking behind the urban regeneration movement.

Under the "sequential test", a greenfield development cannot obtain approval unless it can be demonstrated that there is no appropriate urban site available. The 60% target for brownfield development is designed to take the pressure off rural areas as much as to promote urban regeneration. That still leaves 40% of housing requiring greenfield sites: the switch from the centralised "predict and provide" approach to housing provision to the decentralised "plan, monitor and manage" allows central government to avoid making unpopular decisions about where all those homes are going to go.

A cynic might conclude that, since the much-trumpeted urban renaissance has been undermined by a lack of adequate funding, the whole brownfield bandwagon is in fact a smokescreen to appease the rural lobby.

Eighty-seven per cent of the South-east is green. To meet the region’s housing and development needs, you’d lose just one per cent of that.

Gareth Capner, architect and town planner, Barton Willmore

But foot and mouth has forced us to confront the fact that our landscape is no longer needed for its original agrarian purpose. Vast numbers of farmers could go out of business in the wake of the crisis. The proposed overhaul of European farming subsidies would make thousands more farming concerns unviable. There could soon be millions of acres of abandoned land. Tourism will replace some jobs and subsidised conservation schemes will help manage some of the land as nature reserves, but bed-and-breakfasters and birdwatchers are not enough to support the rural economy.

The Town and Country Planning Association has already launched a study on the land-use implications of a reform of the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy. Early findings suggest that the survivors will be huge agribusinesses that will buy out medium-sized farmers, plus tiny concerns such as organic and "hobby" farms and carpet the countryside with chemically powered monoculture.

The effect of such changes would be devastating. Abandoned pasture would quickly revert to scrub. Hedgerows would be grubbed up to create the same featureless landscape that surrounds Cambridge. In the face of these scenarios, sensitive development begins to look appealing.

"Farming in future is not going to demand the same amount of land," says Gideon Amos, director of the Town and Country Planning Association. "Quite possibly, the agricultural value of the land will fall even further. Rural areas will need development more than ever before. This would not sit well with the present obsessive focus on urban areas." South-east England is suffering more than most from the new planning regime, which discriminates strongly against rural development. Here, brownfield sites are scarce and in the wrong places. The investment in transport systems needed to sustain an urban renaissance is not happening. Meanwhile, rural development, particularly housebuilding, is grinding to a halt. As a consequence, new housing provision has plummeted, with numbers down from 155,000 in 1991 to 140,000 in 1999. For the first time in living memory there are no large housing projects planned in some parts of the Thames Valley.

Yet the area is experiencing phenomenal economic growth. Prices are being forced up and social divides widening. People are commuting further to work, so congestion and pollution are increasing. So desperate is the shortage of affordable housing that there are reports that rough sleepers in Newbury, Berkshire, are being offered sheltered accommodation in Oxford, 30 miles away.

What’s the purpose of conserving fields on the edge of towns, when the towns are becoming hell to live in because of congestion?

Roger Humber, housing consultant

Housing consultant Humber blames much of the crisis on PPG3, the revised planning guidance unveiled last year that introduced sequential testing, urban intensification, densification and the automatic referral to Prescott of all greenfield schemes with more than 150 homes. "PPG3 is a short-term political fix to a perceived problem in the South-east. The South-east doesn't want any development at all, but that is not a realistic proposition. But what's the purpose of conserving fields on the edge of towns, when the towns are becoming hell to live in because of congestion?" All of this is in the name of protecting the countryside – which, some argue, was hardly threatened in the first place. "Eighty-seven per cent of the South-east is green," says Gareth Capner, senior partner at architect and town planner Barton Willmore. "The government's own urbanisation surveys show that to meet the housing and development needs of the region, you'd lose just 1% of that. I think that's a proper balance to strike. Yet the whole debate has been completely distracted by nostalgia and selfish lobbying." Few issues inflame passions as much as building in the countryside. The Council for the Protection of Rural England responded to Prescott's housing targets for south-east England with the claim that: "Forty square miles of rural land [are] under threat from the bulldozer".

When Vodafone finally won permission two years ago to replace its small offices in Newbury with a purpose-built 51,560 m2 headquarters on a greenfield site to the north of the town, a leader in The Independent thundered: "This capitulation sets a dreadful precedent for rural England … Conserving the countryside is vital to keeping our communities compact enough to encourage public transport, cut car pollution and reduce crime." Yet Prescott, explaining his decision not to order a public enquiry, argued exactly the opposite: "The present unsatisfactory distribution of the Vodafone offices … is causing unnecessary travelling in Newbury. The new premises, at a single location, are more sustainable." Looking back on the Vodafone case, it seems that what particularly irked opponents such as The Independent's leader writer was a belief that an office block for a high-tech company was an inappropriate use for a small piece of countryside ("a pleasant wheatfield … a tranquil site with its public footpath disappearing into the grain", according to the same newspaper).

Somehow, offices are unacceptable whereas farm-related constructions such as huge barns, intensive poultry farms and rows of pig sheds are not questioned. Urban renaissance logic would have us put the offices in a town, but why not put the industrial poultry farms on brownfield sites instead? Although people are keen to live and work in the countryside, there is no evidence that chickens have expressed a preference.

Hall believes that much of the opposition to "inappropriate" forms of rural development is the result of a fear of a repeat of the dreadful housing schemes (Nick Raynsford's "tawdry little boxes"), industrial estates and out-of-town malls that ruined many rural areas when they were allowed to mushroom in the 1970s and 1980s. But Hall points out that this kind of development is no longer on the agenda; the shift in emphasis towards more compact, better-designed buildings that has come out of the urban renaissance movement should also lead to acceptable forms of development in the countryside. This could include everything from tight clusters of well-designed housing slotted into existing villages, to entire new towns, strategically planned and located. It could mean micro-communities or ecotourism (hotels would replace abandoned farms in remote areas) or vast, skilfully worked extensions to cities, such as that proposed for Cambridge.

Things have moved on from the days when housebuilders wanted to fill every field with identical executive homes; these days, even the House Builders Federation subscribes to the principles of urban regeneration. But along with many others, the organisation believes that the time has come for a re-examination of policies that treat the countryside and urban areas as opposites, one to be protected from development, the other to be exploited.

"Urban regeneration is working, but there are serious question marks as to whether high-density city living is desirable for everyone," says HBF spokesman Pierre Williams. "Many people aspire to owning a decent sized house in a semi-rural location. We have to take this into account and question whether rigid rules are the best way of protecting and enhancing our environment." Britain has always been an island characterised by buildings nestling in the landscape, quite unlike the tight-packed towns of southern Europe that are the model for the urban renaissance, but equally unlike the US-style sprawl and land-hungry estates that thrived under the 1980s planning regime.