11:01 04 October 2015
With the 60th anniversary of the Green Belt policy in England, Liz Hamilton of the Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England group returns to the Radlett countryside of her childhood and argues this and other protected areas must remain undeveloped
Sixty years ago, on August 3, 1955, the government announced Green Belt areas to be created nationwide to prevent further urban sprawl ‘for the wellbeing of our people and for the preservation of the countryside’.
In the first half of the 20th century, Hertfordshire’s population doubled, with urban areas spreading rapidly from London along the main roads and six railways which cross the county. Ebenezer Howard’s principles for garden cities included a belt of open countryside encircling them, an idea adopted at a CPRE conference in 1930 in Welwyn Garden City, when an area of open countryside around London was advocated to halt ribbon development. The organisation has campaigned for Green Belts ever since.
By the end of the 1960s, 14 Green Belts had been designated around many of England’s major cities to safeguard open countryside between built-up areas, check sprawl, stop urban areas coalescing, and to retain the setting and character of historic towns. Today, more than half of Hertfordshire is designated part of London’s Green Belt, allowing open countryside to survive even in the south of the county, where without protection much would almost certainly now be developed. Instead, towns and villages retain their separate identities, albeit sometimes by barely the width of a field.
A further purpose of Green Belt land is to encourage urban regeneration and reuse of brownfield land. CPRE commissioned research in 2014 which found that a million homes could be accommodated on brownfield land across England. Yet by March of this year more than 200,000 homes, including 34,000 in Herts, were proposed in Green Belts, despite the government’s commitment to protect this land from development.
Justifications for this major attack come from Green Belt critics who say it is just litter-strewn wasteland, while others have complained it is too intensively farmed to allow much wildlife. A third line is that Green Belts offer little public access and so benefit few people.
A personal comparison
Born in the same year as the Green Belt project, I have lived much of my life in Hertfordshire and have walked extensively in the Green Belt. I spent my first decade in Radlett, and our family walks in the countryside close to our home in what became Green Belt were almost a ritual. Curious to know how the countryside of my early childhood has fared, in early August I went back to those same footpaths. Little has changed; the path from the edge of the town still runs alongside a thick hedge where we used to pick blackberries. The old trees along the hedgerow have largely survived. To either side, stubble in the arable fields awaited the plough. Beyond, in the sunken lane bordered by ancient oak and ash trees, a wren shot out of its nest under a tree root, and goldfinches twittered in the branch tops above.
Alongside the river Colne, I followed a bridleway towards its confluence with the Ver, to my right a well-tended hedge and to my left the steep field where, during the winter of 1962-3, when snow lay on the ground for weeks, we spent many happy hours on our toboggan. By the river, butterflies and other insects searched for nectar in the wide banks of willowherb, burdock, sedges and other waterside plants. Children hopped across a line of stepping stones.
Next I followed a path by the Ver: wide, flat and accessible, it forms part of the River Ver Trail which runs the 17-mile length of the river. This was new territory to me, beyond the reach of my family’s walks. Since I left Radlett, the M25 has cut through the countryside to the north, threaded between Bricket Wood and Park Street, close to Colney Street where I first went to school opposite the Handley Page aircraft factory. One source of noise – the planes which flew low over our playing field to land across the road – has been replaced by the continuous roar of traffic. But alongside the Ver, within a mile of the motorway, natural noises – the wind in the poplar trees, the river splashing over the little weirs in its bed, the birdsong – drowned out the traffic.
Later in my walk, two buzzards flew up from a copse of trees, wheeling and mewing in greeting. In my childhood we associated these handsome birds of prey with West Country holidays; now they are firmly-established residents in Herts and always a joy to see.
Nearing the end of my circuit, I reached the little brook, a tributary of the Colne, where we used to look for minnows and sticklebacks. Where I remember close-cropped grassland along its banks, there are now lines of dense willows. Further upstream, my path crossed a waterside meadow, still grazed, which was usually wet in winter and I wondered if ladies smock still flowers here each spring.
Are the Green Belt critics right? Not here. Public rights of way, productive agricultural land, ample wildlife habitats, birdsong and the sight and sound of water are common features across Hertfordshire’s Green Belt. As I reached the end of my walk, I was reminded of that clear distinction between countryside and town which is characteristic of Green Belt. I saw a little litter, mostly in one place by a roadside. All around, the abundant trees act as shelter and screen, providing audible as well as visual interest.
This is not spectacular landscape but it does feel like proper countryside. Above all it is accessible, not just to locals but to Londoners; Radlett train station is just 15 miles from the centre of London. In the 19th century, Octavia Hill, a founder of the National Trust, took children from London to Epping Forest to breathe fresh air and enjoy the green and peaceful place. Today our need for fresh air and exercise in green places is as important as ever and it is thought 30 million people benefit from using England’s Green Belts.
It would be madness to squander this precious resource. Fortunately Hertsmere Borough Council, the planning authority for the Radlett area, has no provisions to release Green Belt land for housing. CPRE is urging those Hertfordshire authorities proposing development in Green Belt to think again, in line with national planning policy. The new CPRE national campaign Our Green Belt calls on the government to ensure its policies for the Green Belt are implemented properly. We also want to demonstrate how valuable the Green Belt is and challenge the misconceptions which seek to undermine that value.
CPRE is asking people everywhere to show their support for the Green Belt. Visit cpre.org.uk to find out more about what you can do to help.