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Cameron swore he’d treasure the Green Belt. What a hollow promise

By
Melissa Kite


PUBLISHED:

19:54 EST, 19 November 2013


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UPDATED:

05:19 EST, 20 November 2013

Backtrack: Cameron once said he would no more risk the Green Belt than risk his own family

Backtrack: Cameron once said he would no more risk the Green Belt than risk his own family

His brow furrowed with passion, David Cameron once said of the Green Belt: ‘I would no more put that at risk than I would put at risk my own family.’

It was a hostage to fortune he may now regret.

Last year, as he made his declaration of faith on the BBC’s Countryfile programme, Mr Cameron insisted that the Coalition’s new planning laws would enable local people to safeguard green spaces.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles was just as emphatic a few months later: ‘Protecting the character of the countryside is stamped deep into the heart of Conservatism.

‘Let me tell you: the Green Belt plays a vital role in stopping urban sprawl and we will protect it.’

Yet all that has been forgotten.

On Monday, David Cameron suggested rural Tories stop fighting Coalition planning reforms in the countryside.

He said building on the Green Belt would make life better for their children by helping them onto the housing ladder.

It is the latest in a series of Tory announcements favouring developers while ignoring the views of local communities.

Sprawl

For it has emerged developers wanting approval for housing schemes opposed by locals are simply appealing to the Government’s National Planning Inspectorate — which often gives the go-ahead if councils haven’t yet published their own plans for new housing.

Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi said speculators were using the system to ‘concrete over villages’.

And the Campaign To Protect Rural England (CPRE) estimates the number of houses planned for Green Belt land has doubled over the past year.

England has 14 Green Belts, making up 13 pc of the total land in the country.

The designation is intended to stop urban sprawl with a ring of inviolable countryside on which building will be resisted for the foreseeable future.

Change of plan: On Monday Cameron said building on the Green Belt would make life better for our children

Change of plan: On Monday Cameron said building on the Green Belt would make life better for our children

In the Green Belt, there has always been a presumption against inappropriate development, unless special circumstances can be demonstrated to prove the benefits of the development will outweigh the harm caused to the landscape.

Since the new planning rules were brought in by the Coalition, over 160,000 homes — and rising — have been proposed on Green Belt land, compared with 81,000 planned in 2012.

And here is the really shocking thing: those new planning reforms Cameron promised would protect the countryside have actually made it harder for councils and local people to reject such development.

If this precious piece of rural England is bulldozed, the London sprawl will practically join Guildford.

What was sold as ‘localism’ — 
empowering residents to object to plans they feel are unsuitable for
their areas — has, in fact, empowered greedy developers.

The National Planning Policy Framework
requires local authorities — not central government as before — to
estimate future housing needs.

They must then allocate the land to meet it, with the presumption in favour of development as long as it is ‘sustainable’.

In other words, as long as there is the infrastructure to support more people moving to an area — and ‘sustainability’ is a weasel word open to myriad interpretations — new houses should be built even if they are in a Green Belt.

Conservationists say the result is that it is more difficult to oppose development.

The CPRE says the threat to England’s 6,000 square miles of Green Belt has reached the same level as under Labour.

What a shocking betrayal.

Protection: The 14 Green Belts in England are designed to stop urban sprawl with a ring of inviolable land

Protection: The 14 Green Belts in England are designed to stop urban sprawl with a ring of inviolable land

Vow: Appearing on BBC show Countryfile last year, Cameron told John Craven he would protect the land

Vow: Appearing on BBC show Countryfile last year, Cameron told John Craven he would protect the land

The effect is particularly damaging in
the Home Counties, which are bearing the brunt of the pressure to build
more homes as the British population increases inexorably.

In
Surrey, where I ride my horses, people are trying to come to terms with
the bombshell news that Guildford Borough Council is considering plans
for a ‘new town’ of 2,175 homes on idyllic Green Belt countryside near
Wisley.

The plot cited — 168 hectares — lies
next to the world-famous Royal Horticultural Society gardens and is a
haven for walkers and horse-riders.

‘We are not changing the Green Belt. You decide in your community. Under our plans, villages will be able to designate green spaces they want to keep.’

– David Cameron on Countryfile in 2012

These glorious meadows and fields will disappear under homes for nearly 5,000 people if the developers get their way.

And
this is despite the fact there is virtually no local infrastructure.
There isn’t even a shop in the nearest hamlet, never mind schools, roads
or rail links.

If this precious piece of rural England is bulldozed, the London sprawl will practically join Guildford.

Elsewhere, in Gloucestershire, there are proposals for 12,200 new homes in Green Belt land near Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury.

Northumberland County Council is consulting on 2,100 homes in the Green Belt around Hexham, Ponteland and Prudhoe. In Mid Sussex, 10,000 homes are proposed by Mayfield Market Towns.

What on earth is going on?

Despite much trumpeting of his green credentials, Cameron seems to have abandoned our countryside to developers.

Long-standing: The Guilford land now planned to be ploughed over borders the Royal Horticultural Society's garden

Long-standing: Guilford land now set to be ploughed over borders the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden

In that Countryfile interview, he claimed: ‘We are not changing the Green Belt. We are not changing all those protections that are there. You decide in your community. Under our plans, villages will be able to designate green spaces they want to keep.’

What empty words they turned out to be.

Fast forward less than two years and all over England, communities are trying to fight off big developers.

Not everyone in the Tory Party is complicit in this treacherous assault on our green spaces. To their credit, backbenchers are in open revolt and putting increasing pressure on Mr Cameron to wake up and smell the cement mixers.

Devastating

Sir Paul Beresford, MP for Mole Valley in Surrey, said: ‘What is going on is grim and devastating for people living in rural or semi-rural constituencies. It’s worse than depressing.’

Many MPs are in no doubt that the concreting of the Green Belt is due to a catastrophic failure in immigration policy.

Angry: Andrew Motion, the president of the Campaign To Protect Rural England

Angry: Andrew Motion, the president of the Campaign To Protect Rural England, said: ‘We need to prevent the needless smearing of concrete across our irreplaceable countryside’

As Dominic Raab, the MP for Esher and Walton, told me: ‘We face the indirect spill-over from immigration pressures on London and the South.’

Pressure for more housing must be dealt with, of course. But if we are not careful, our once green and pleasant land will be paved with the broken promises of ministers who have sold it off to solve a housing crisis caused by successive governments’ failure to tackle the population explosion.

With all Mr Cameron’s talk about the great North-South divide, wouldn’t one solution be to start spreading our burgeoning population more evenly?

Not only would it protect Green Belt in the South, it would go some way towards bridging the gap between wealth and skills in the North and South.

But that would require innovative thinking. And standing up to development giants.

Let there by no doubt: developers prefer to build in attractive areas where they can set prices high. They are growing fat on the planning system.

There are already serious question marks over some of the firms involved and their links to senior politicians.

The owners of the site at Wisley, who stand to make hundreds of millions of pounds if it is developed into a ‘new town’, are investors with a hedge fund called RAB Capital.

The organisation bought the site in a fire sale in 2012 after the previous owners went into liquidation.

Precious

The chairman of RAB Capital is Michael Alen-Buckley, who donated £100,000 to the Conservatives before the last General Election.

The investment company set up to handle the project, Wisley Property Investments Ltd, is based in the Cayman Islands — so the profit to these developers from building homes on this precious Green Belt may not even be taxed in this country.

The several dozen or so residents in nearby villages are no match for such an outfit.

Action needed: Once the countryside is gone, it's gone forever. We will lose a great part of our nation's character

Urgent: Once the countryside is gone, it’s gone forever. We will lose a great part of our nation’s character

Here and elsewhere, the message goes out: ‘Do not oppose us. We have unlimited funds to fight you. We will wear you down.’

The Campaign to Protect Rural England’s Charter To Save The Countryside calls on councils to build on brownfield sites first.

The CPRE estimates that half a million homes could be provided by using previously developed land and re-developing derelict buildings.

Although this can be more expensive and difficult than building on green fields, if we cannot come up with innovative ways to develop such sites, we will lose our countryside — and with it a great part of the character of our nation.

And once the countryside is gone, it is gone for ever. 

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