The London Green Belt Council
The following article by our President, Ronald Smith, appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of our Newsletter. However we thought it worthy of a wider distribution .
Last February (Feb 2005) I gave up the Chairmanship of The London Green Belt Council, which I had held for twenty five years and your committee has asked me to write a note about the LGBC.
It was created in 1954 when the government was preparing to issue the first ever circular on green belts. Several of the main environmental organisations of the time, including the Open Spaces Society, the CPRE and the Ramblers' Association, realised how important and permanent the green belts would be to the planning scene. It was decided that this matter deserved an organisation of its own specialising in the subject rather than just another item o n their various agendas. Thus the LGBC was created. It is still a voluntary organisation employing no staff and its membership is organisations not individuals. It consists of national bodies like the ones mentioned above, regional and county branches of such organisations, local amenity and similar bodies in an area bounded roughly by Leighton Buzzard, Chelmsford, Tunbridge Wells and Reading. A few planning authorities (St. Albans is the nearest to Potters Bar) pay to receive papers without becoming full members. The membership includes organisations in inner London with no green belt of their own. The LGBC meets three or four times a year. Meetings are usually held in a Parliamentary Committee room.
So what does the LGBC do? We are consulted by government on policy proposals with green belt implications. Such consultation is commonplace now but that was not so formerly. We advise our member organisations on what they can argue or what it might be advisable not to argue with regard to local problems. We take part in major inquiries ourselves. We issue notes and commentaries on planning matters to our members about three times a year. Overall we try to keep our members better informed so that they can not only make their arguments more effectively but can make them themselves. It is virtually never necessary to pay for professional representation at inquiries and we have never done so but it is surprising how many organisations still say in effect "we can't do that because we can't afford the legal fees". The LGBC is entirely non political. We have been fortunate in that green belt is not a party political issue. Admittedly at election times each party swears that it will defend green belt better than the others but in reality there is little between them and that has been so throughout the history of the green belt. The real opposition comes from the house building and development interests and especially from some professional bodies like the Royal Town Planning Institute. The RTPI has for years been asserting that it supports green belts but wants them modernised and then advocates ideas for "modernisation" which would effectively destroy them. We have been criticising the RTPI for this for years and now, within the last few months, it has finally admitted that "green spaces not green belts" is its aim.
So in so far as we have any influence with government it is because it is known that we pursue our arguments without descending into party bias and half truths. I recently gave a talk to an organisation which had circulated a note to its members saying that hundreds of square miles of green belt would be built upon. I told them that we had Ministerial assurances that the government had no plans to change existing policy on green belts. Of course that does not mean that there can never be any changes and there always have been but it is necessary to keep things in perspective. Official figures issued last year show that as regards the metropolitan green belt (which covers parts of 68 different local authority areas) in the years 1997-2003, twenty three local authorities had increased their amount of green belt and nineteen had reduced it. The overall loss was 220 acres and that was mainly because one authority (Hillingdon) had reduced its green belt by 667 acres.
The answer to a recent parliamentary question about green belt land released for development in Herts in each year since 1997 was that the development in Herts green belt was:
|1997||163 acres||1998||244 acres||1999||86 acres||2000||61 acres|
|2001||79 acres||2002||99 acres||2003||37 acres|
But that over the whole period the net change in the area of green belt in Herts was a reduction of 123 acres.
As regards the future LGBC will have to continue to fight and persuade its members to fight the idea that some development in green belt is alright if other land is made green belt instead. And lest you think that is a recent idea, we were fighting the same concept when Michael Heseltine was Secretary of State.
I have immensely enjoyed my 25 years as Chairman of the LGBC. It has been very stretching but very rewarding and I cannot conceal that I have enjoyed chairing meetings in parliamentary committee rooms.
R W G Smith