The head of the official body set up to protect the English countryside will today call for a review of laws protecting the green belt, amid accusations from conservationists he has been “toothless” in facing up to the Government’s massive housing plans.
Sir Martin Doughty, chairman of Natural England, will say in a speech to mark the body’s first anniversary that the Government’s determination to build three million new homes by 2020 means that “the sanctity of green belt land should be questioned.”
He will say the green belt was invented 70 years ago as a solution to development pressures of the time and “was certainly not intended to deal with the complex environmental challenges that face us today.”
“Nobody could deny, and we do not, that the green belt has achieved its primary purpose in constraining urban sprawl,” Sir Martin will say.
“But the consequence of this is that development tends to leapfrog over the green belt and land in much more vulnerable parts of the natural environment.
“We must therefore review the green belt and commit more effort to making the green belt something that adds value.”
Sir Martin wants environmentally friendly developments to be allowed on the 4.2 million acres of green belt designed to prevent urban sprawl, so the more remote countryside can be protected from development.
However, conservationists accuse Natural England of failing to fulfil its original remit as an “independent and powerful guardian of our natural landscape” by accepting Government projections that three million new homes are needed by 2020 in the first place, and by going along with the Government’s proposed speeding up of the planning system.
In a report to mark the agency’s first anniversary, the Campaign to Protect Rural England accuses Natural England of failing to recognise the outstanding quality of much green belt land – in the Chilterns and Surrey Hills, Delamere Forest in Cheshire or in parts of the Pennines.
It also accuses Natural England of facilitating clean energy developments – from wind farms to the Severn Barrage – instead of carrying out its statutory duty to protect landscapes and habitats and the wider natural environment.
It says the agency “should avoid acting, either deliberately or unwittingly, as a proxy for the renewable energy industry, which already has many champions in Government”.
Tom Oliver, head of rural policy at the campaign, said: “We have yet to be convinced that the new agency will be effective in engaging with the powerful threat of a weakened planning system and mounting pressure for over-development beyond environmental capacity.
“There is also a risk that we seriously harm magnificent and wild places with renewable energy infrastructure in the name of saving them from climate change.”
A further criticism of the agency in the campaign’s report is that it has weakened its position in its first year by deciding to start afresh and develop new policies across its whole remit rather than depend on the experience of its predecessor bodies, English Nature and the Countryside Agency.
By Charles Clover, Environment Editor
29 October 2007
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