Making "Green" mean green

A significant part of the opposition to building more houses where there is a demand for them comes from two erroneous impressions. The first is that the UK is vastly overbuilt, and we are in danger of losing huge swathes of what little countryside remains.  In fact 5.9 percent of UK land is built upon, with a further 2.5 percent designated as "urban green," such as parks and cemeteries. This means that about 92 percent of UK land is not built upon.

Even the notion that "the Southeast is overcrowded" is an exaggeration, as anyone flying over the Southeast will have observed. Most of its land is not built upon.

The second error is the assumption that the Green Belt is green. Some of it is indeed what people think of as "green," with meadows, woods and streams and rolling green fields.  Much of it is not, however. Some 65 percent of it is agricultural, including vast fields of monoculture crops onto which quantities of fertilizers and pesticides are applied, running off into nearby waters. This does not provide a suitable habitat for birds and small mammals, and is not "green" in the understood environmental sense.

Within land designated as Green Belt there is also a significant amount of damaged or distressed land such as abandoned quarries, dumps, breakers' yards, abandoned factories, filling stations, and former car parks. Some 18 percent of Green Belt land is deemed to be "neglected," rather than properly green.

The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 has led to a shortage of housing near or around cities. It might have been appropriate for the very different UK of 70 years ago, but it should now be updated to bring it to meet modern needs. A major step would be the classification of land within the Green Belt into three categories. Genuinely green land would be designated as "verdant," the type people like to look at and to walk through, and to feel that we are protecting nature by keeping it green.

The second designation would be "agricultural," itself perhaps subdivided into the different types of farmland given over to cereal crops, animal husbandry, or other agricultural uses. L The third designation would be "damaged" or "distressed" land.  The Town and Country Planning Act should be amended so that it protects the verdant land, but allows building, especially house-building, on some agricultural and damaged land.

Not a great deal would be needed. A recent ASI report found that building upon just 3.9 percent of London's Green Belt, for example, could allow for 1 million new homes.  A reclassification of this nature would allow for the building of the desperately needed homes, while protecting the genuinely nature-friendly green land that is part of our heritage and part of our sense of identity as a nation.