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Belt loosening is wrong for all concerned

AGENDA Viewpoint

Green belt policy urgently needs reforming, argues Mark Prisk, MP

IF YOU think green belts are just about protecting the countryside, think again. They're also about urban regeneration. Let me explain.

Over the past 50 years green belts have been placed around many of our key cities and towns, such as London and Birmingham. Until 2003 they were a permanent, natural boundary which meant that, if you wanted more offices, shops or houses, you needed to re-use developed land and buildings.

This containment of the city fringe has also helped to hold up local urban land values by defining local land supply.

For neighbouring cities, the local green belt has also stopped towns from merging. The 'Meriden Gap' between Birmingham and Coventry has stopped their suburbs from becoming one anonymous strip of land. Bristol and Bath are similarly protected, retaining their individual character.

Unfortunately John Prescott has undermined all this by changing Government policy. Green belt land can now be swapped within any region of England. For example, under this policy 1,500 acres of the Metropolitan Green Belt in Hertfordshire could be swapped for a similar amount of land in Cambridgeshire. In other words, it is no longer permanent, or site-specific. Mr Prescott has replaced the belt with an elast ic band.

Local communities, including those in my own constituency, are naturally up in arms. But until now many in the construction and property sector have assumed this policy change can only be good news.

Let me, writing as a chartered surveyor rather than as an MP, suggest why this is wrong.

First of all this policy will create uncertainty by undermining established local land values. For example, if you've a planned urban housing scheme you can't be certain any more about the availability of green belt land nearby. It may come onto the market, in different plots at different times.

This creates uncertainty in local property markets and will undermine efforts to re-use brownfield sites.

After all, if your competitor could develop 40 acres of open green belt land in a year's time, what will that mean for your old factory site that needs decontaminating?

Secondly, speculation is already affecting rural land values. In Hertfordshire, plots of green belt land are being sold on the internet at the equivalent of more than £60,000 an acre.

Lastly, there's the public image of the property and construction sector. There's a common misconception that everyone in the development sector is solely concerned with building more. Yet it's a section of your industry that is making urban renewal possible.

Indeed without your industry's skills, urban regeneration can't happen. That is why I'd like your help.

I have secured the chance to present a Green Belt Reform Bill next year. I want to bring certainty back to green belt designation and so underpin urban renewal schemes. I have already secured support from all of the main political parties. I expect to secure support from several sensible environmental groups.

I'd like the support of people from construction and property, individually or corporately. After all, if you are engaged in urban renewal why not show your support for it? If you agree, then please write to me at the House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA.

Green belts have been with us for 50 years. Let's make them work for us, for the next generation.