England is famous for its green and pleasant land, much of which is contained in the country’s green belt. 

The green belt concept was created in the 1950s to protect the countryside around towns and cities from uncontrolled expansion and development. Currently around 12 per cent of England is designated green belt land. 

But campaigners say the number of homes proposed on green belt land has almost doubled since the government relaxed planning application restrictions last year.

And much to conservationists' concerns, the environment minister says the country may need to accept the loss of environmental assets such as green belt land for long-term environmental and economic gain. 

Owen Paterson stated that the government’s planning reforms are intended to promote sustainable growth. But he warned that where there should be an economic project, ultimately an environmental asset may have to be moved. 

His words follow a recent pledge by the prime minister to help young people achieve the ‘dream of home ownership’. 

But far from being a dream, the government’s tone is a nightmare to many. Green belt land is fiercely defended by interest groups such as local residents and environmentalists.

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England is one such defender. 

It says the invasion of the green belt is unnecessary and harmful. Neil Sinden, the group’s Director of Policy and Campaigns, says:

“The planning system is there to strike the right balance between accommodating development and protecting the countryside and at the moment the balance is tipped heavily in favour of developers. So we’re not likely to see any more housing being built than would otherwise be built but we are seeing more houses being built which damage the countryside and in ways which do not take advantage of the opportunities there are to invest in our urban areas and to re-use brownfield land.”

But the evidence is disputed. Kristian Niemetz is a senior research fellow at the right-leaning think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. He says people must see the bigger picture and understand the scale of the housing crisis.

Kristian insists that brownfield land is inadequate for the task at hand. 

Plans now exist for more than 150000 homes to be built on protected land compared to 80000 at the same time last year.

The prime minister has said the reforms are vital to creating a socially mobile society. But campaigners say the prime minister is looking at the impact of the reforms through rose tinted spectacles.

The government’s planning minister has previously admitted that the planning reforms, much of which affect rural constituencies with strong Conservative support, could lose the Conservatives votes at the next general election.

Nature Check 2013

Meanwhile, a group of 41 environmental organisations say the government has failed to meet a third of its green commitments. 

They've issued a report, Nature Check 2013, which says that as well an endangering the Green Belt, the government has not lived up to its promises in areas like animal welfare, marine conservation and wildlife protection.

But they've also said progress has been made on issues like fisheries reform and international protection for elephants and rhinos.

VoR's Brendan Cole spoke to Robin Wynde, head of species policy of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, one of the groups which drew up the report.

Download podcast


Do you see green issues being a major factor in the 2015 elections?

"We certainly hope so. We did a public opinion survey asking their views on nature conservation and how important it was for them, and some of those results are really quite important and quite impressive and we hope all the political parties will pay attention.

"When asked whether the natural environment and its wildelife should be protected at all costs', 83 percent of the population agreed with that statement."

(Voice of Russia)