Why we should junk the green belt

The architecture and design expert KEVIN McCLOUD argues that our planning system is destroying the countryside it is meant to be saving

Like all my brilliant plans, it is not entirely my own and I have to thank Paul Finch, editor of Architectural Review, for the essential germ of it, offered during a car journey across London. His idea was radical and crystalline: let people build what they like, where they like. The only restriction would be that they would have to use an architect. This would be a Grand Design for everybody.

green belt

I think this is foolproof, with one or two refinements. First, about half of the sale cost of any new home in Britain is attributable to land cost, because building land is so scarce. We live in the second most densely populated country in Europe after Holland, and our planning system is entirely predicated on the principle of saying "no" (some local authorities still, outrageously, call their planning departments "development control"). So it's hardly surprising that getting planning permission in Britain is as easy as getting a licence to print money or distil your own vodka.

So my solution is to make more land available, and to solve the crisis in farming at the same time, by scrapping the common agricultural policy and instead let farmers sell or lease their land for construction. This would allow them to grow houses on fields that could provide a one-off yield of, say, £30,000 an acre, way above agricultural rates but negligible to the construction industry, and in so doing relieve European governments of their heavy subsidy obligations. It's got to be better than the EU's new Single Payment Scheme, where farmers are going to be paid to do nothing to vast tracts of British countryside except gently caress it and watch the weeds grow.

Of course, this means a radical departure from current planning processes. For a start, planners would be employed to facilitate and engage with the architectural process. But then, in my Britain most planners would retrain as electricians or plumbers. The finest of them - and some of the best are employed on only £25,000 a year - would have their salaries doubled and their ranks swelled by enthusiastic amateurs. In other words, we should forget our local authority planning committees made up of unskilled local councillors and replace them with groups of local building historians, an architect or two and the odd building engineer - people who really know their subject and who care passionately.

And while we're scrapping the planning system, we might as well junk the green belt. Why? Because it's another outdated concept designed to trammel development and to preserve the distinction between "town" and "country" as enshrined in the 1949 Town and Country Planning Act, which still forms the basis of planning policy. The concept of the green belt as a green lung or an accessible amenity for a city is patronising given that so much green belt land is inaccessible, and that what many people want is a house with a bit of land, some chickens and local facilities.

The Sunday Times, Sep 18 2005

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