The Telegraph, January 7, 2014
The creation of the green belt has proved to be one of the most successful acts in the history of British conservation. These leafy buffer zones prevent ugly conurbations dominating the landscape, providing a backdrop to our lives where we can maintain contact with the seasons and influences of nature.
To my way of thinking, they are also inseparable from a sense of Britishness. But they are much more than just this. Britain’s green belts are our greatest, unofficial national park. Developers should tread lightly on such hallowed ground, but that seems unlikely to happen, given the National Trust’s recent warning that half of English councils with green-belt land are preparing to allocate some of it for development ahead of brownfield sites.
Less than 100 years old, these verdant spaces are maturing into internationally important habitats. Around London, for example, woods that have grown outside the suburbs, without economic modification since the end of the Second World War, now give us the opportunity to explore woodland that is richly diverse in species – land more resembling the ancient forests of prehistory than areas in agricultural management elsewhere. Green belt, by its nature, is rich in hedgerows and strip woodland, which link green spaces. Such “wildlife corridors” play a vital role in connecting smaller habitats, which in isolation would be far less viable. If you know where to look, all manner of rare species are re-establishing themselves.
Despite this, most of these wonders of conservation go unnoticed. But the green belt has many other benefits. The trees create healthier air and a psychologically nourishing environment, making happy places to live, to relax and to enjoy as families. People clearly value this, a fact reflected in the prices of nearby homes.
There are some who bemoan this, and blame the price of green-belt housing for a shortage of affordable homes. So should we abandon this principle on that basis? I think not. Instead we must find ways to provide affordable homes while protecting the concept of the green belt. Indeed, many new properties have been built in these areas, specifically designed for first-time buyers. I remain to be convinced that plans for more radical expansion on green sites are truly in the national interest, rather than in that of opportunists hoping to replace green spaces with the bricks of their own economic growth.
The green belt is an inspiration and reminder of who we are as a nation. It provides the opportunity to teach future generations to recognise the plants and animals around them, to interpret birdsong, to understand the miracles of nature and be aware that the balance of species to be found there is a direct measure of the health of our land.
Worldwide, politicians struggle to understand that conservation issues will resist their usual manipulations. Indeed, they have a unique ability to unmask questionable motivation. But it is in the clear light of conservation that true political genius shines most brightly.
Take, for example, Abraham Lincoln. On June 30 1864, just as the American Civil War was approaching its zenith, President Lincoln, mindful of the future, took time out from military issues to put pen to paper and sign Senate Bill 203. Better remembered as the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, this marked the first time that the federal government had protected land “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation”. This brilliant act of leadership set a precedent that would lead to the creation of Yellowstone National Park and the US national park system, a model subsequently copied around the world. It may seem strange today that this Bill was promoted by a Republican.
I was brought up in the green belt. I was taught that it was inviolable. But now I realise that, as is always the case, conservation victories are never truly won – they are just work in progress. The moment that the battle seems to be over, some new threat emerges. Conservation is like holding on to a handful of precious sand; no matter how tightly you grip it, grains are inevitably lost between your fingers. The only way you can ensure its preservation is to seek to top up the losses.
The greatest benefit of the green belt is that, unwittingly, our predecessors created in these rural zones areas of increasing biodiversity, right at the front line of environmental decay. Acting to sustain and encourage this variation of life forms is the single most important principle of conservation.
To me it is not just about the woodland where rare earth-star fungi or morels grow, or the brilliant diversity of plants and their attendant insects thriving on chalk fields between housing estates. It is about a larger principle and the message we send out to the world. The green belt is that rare thing in conservation, “greener grass”: a better way, an example, a way forward.
When people are out walking their dog in the park, or running on common land, or just enjoying the song of a blackbird as they trudge home from the railway station after a hard day at work, I truly believe that the majority of them feel proud of this preserved ring of land, and of their country. It reaches right to the core of who we are. The British public may be slow to anger, but developers should remember what a fierce reputation we have for finishing a fight once it starts.