Abolish green belt to get the economy moving?

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Wed Sep 12 19:14:19 BST 2012

The bulldozers are coming for the green belt

Huge chunks of the green belt around Cambridge 
are being gobbled up by developers – is this Britain’s future?

By Harry Wallop -= 8:16PM BST 10 Sep 2012

Trumpington is England at its most Richard 
Curtis. The Cambridgeshire village has a gem of a 
13th-century church, a thatched cottage, an Eric 
Gill war memorial, and an old vicarage of such 
gorgeousness that I am already measuring up the curtains.

It is one of the “necklace of villages” that 
surrounds Cambridge to the south and whose names 
are redolent of Byron bathing in the river and 
Rupert Brooke yearning for honey with his tea: 
Grantchester, Barton, Melbourn, Great Shelford.

True, the old agricultural centre on Maris lane 
(after which the potatoes are named) is unlovely 
and the 1947 housing estate needs a lick of 
paint. But the area, say most of the residents, 
remains very distinct from the university town 
two-and-a-half miles up the road. Ceri Galloway, 
whom I find tending the community orchard (next 
door to the community chicken run), says: 
“Trumpington feels like a village. It has a very 
strong community, we have local groups, and a lot 
of interaction – and this brings resilience to 
the community.” That, say most of the locals, is 
largely because of the green belt. But this is all about to change.

Even when standing among the gravestones in 
Trumpington church, the faint whirr of the angle 
grinder can be heard drifting over the yew 
bushes. Brooke’s peace and holy quiet and great 
pacific skies are being shattered by a 
development of 3,300 homes – all of which are 
being built on land that was previously in the 
green belt. It is a move that was recently lauded 
by both George Osborne and David Cameron, when 
they appealed for Britain’s planners to stop 
“dithering”. The Chancellor said Cambridge had 
been “pretty smart about swapping some bits of 
the green belt for other bits”. In other words, 
allowing development on some parts of the green 
belt as long it was compensated with new land elsewhere.

This is a policy allowed for under existing 
legislation and which the Government would like 
local authorities to adopt more aggressively. 
Indeed, this weekend it was revealed that many 
developers are amassing large tranches of green 
belt in the hope of building on it in the future, 
or have agreed deals to buy the land if planning 
permission is approved. Plans are in place to 
build on green belt in Bedfordshire, Essex and 
near Bath – if council officials succumb to 
pressure and release the previously protected land to be ''swapped’’.

Visiting Trumpington – or Great Kneighton as the 
developers tediously insist on calling it – you 
are hit by the scale of this “swapping”. Atop the 
new Addenbrooke’s road, you look down on a vast 
plot of over 100 acres, which was once prime 
arable land, farmed by the Pemberton family for 
over 300 years. A lone spire from Cambridge can 
be spotted from above the trees, and off to the 
east the bulk of Addenbrooke’s hospital; 
otherwise this is pure countryside, with the 
rolling hills of Gog Magog behind you. Now the 
bulldozers have moved in. In a corner of the 
field the Novo development is starting to take 
shape. The site is covered in glossy hoardings, 
with pictures of young couples sipping frothy 
coffee and lounging on their modernist sofas. 
Posters shout: “Your Stamp Duty Paid!” and “Free 
Carpets on All Reservations!”.

The majority of the houses have not had their 
foundations laid, but many locals are already 
unhappy. Robin Page, the farming campaigner and 
local district councillor – elected this summer 
on a platform of fighting the developments – 
says: “They are an abomination. I think it is 
appalling what is happening to south 
Cambridgeshire. The city is being trashed.”

Ms Galloway, whose allotment and chickens will be 
overlooked by the new buildings, says: “It’s 
going to happen whether we like it or not. We 
won’t be a community any more and that’s 
incredibly sad.” Both insist their objections are 
not Nimbyism, but rather a concern based on the 
quality of the housing being developed and the 
effects of eating into the green belt.

I am being shown around by Andrew Roberts, a 
former museum creator and softly spoken head of 
the Trumpington Residents’ Association, who is 
more optimistic about the plans the developers 
have laid out. They include an arts centre, a 
secondary school, a country park and even new 
allotments. He, like most others, accepts the 
need for more homes in a city that is bursting at 
the seams, and where property prices defy 
gravity. But now it is taking shape, he is wary 
about the future: “There is a substantial scale 
of change going on around here and we’ve accepted 
that change. But there is a limit and if they go 
any further into the green belt the changes on 
the population, the pressure on resources, water, 
and the character of this area would be of a 
completely different order of magnitude.”

This is the real concern. Over the past five 
years or so, a total of 1,181 acres of green belt 
around Cambridge has been stripped of its 
protection and handed over to developers. Some of 
the land will be used by the university and 
Addenbrooke’s hospital to expand, but much has been sold for housing.

But this development is just the start. Both 
Cambridge city council and its district council 
are consulting on substantial further changes to 
the city’s green belt. Between 31,000 and 48,000 
more homes are envisaged, many of them potentially on green belt.

The city’s population of roughly 120,000 could 
mushroom into nearly 170,000 within one 
generation. Many such as the Campaign to Protect 
Rural England believe the green belt has been one 
of Britain’s most successful policies – 
preserving the distinctive nature of some towns 
and cities, while encouraging inner-city 
regeneration in others. Indeed, the organisation 
warns that more than 80,000 new homes could be 
built on Britain’s green belt in the next two 
decades, equivalent to a town larger than Slough. 
They warn that everyone should take note of the 
plans for the university town. What happens to 
this part of England could happen elsewhere.

For though Mr Osborne and Downing Street insisted 
any green belt erosion was being made good 
elsewhere, this is just not true, according to 
those in Cambridge. Both the city and the 
district councils confirm that not a square inch 
of new land has been designated as green belt.

Many on the ground in Cambridge believe it would 
be immaterial even if they had won back land into 
the green belt. Mr Roberts says: “You can’t carry 
on losing inner green belt. It serves as a high 
quality gateway between the countryside and the 
town. It’s not compensated for by something 10 miles away.”

The fear is that the necklace of villages will 
merge into one big sprawling “Greater Cambridge”. 
Those that know Cambridge well say they are not 
just being sentimental in trying to oppose this. 
It would be a big economic mistake. Peter 
Landshoff is a retired maths professor and a 
specialist in quarks, who – apart from smashing 
particles together at Cern for four years – has 
not left Cambridge since he arrived as an undergraduate in 1956.

“When I first arrived I used to cycle home from 
the university to Barton and I wouldn’t be 
overtaken by a single car. Now it is one long 
traffic jam. The transport infrastructure just 
cannot cope. Cambridge is an ancient town with 
narrow streets. And it is too early to say what 
the impact will be from all these developments, let alone any further ones.”

But London and Manchester and many other places 
just have to put up with bad traffic, why can’t 
Cambridge? “Well, Cambridge is a knowledge-based 
economy. Staff who work here are highly qualified 
and you will not be able to attract them if they 
don’t have somewhere nice to live. We want to 
remain a profitable area. If you don’t keep the 
town nice, you will kill the golden goose.”

Landshoff is a trustee of Cambridge Past Present 
& Future and agrees with the Campaign to Protect 
Rural England: namely, the green belt should only 
be built upon in exceptional circumstances and 
only if all alternatives have been explored. And 
there are alternatives in the centre of 
Cambridge, including land owned by Network Rail. 
“You can’t do it without effort and without 
money, but that doesn’t meant it isn’t economically viable,” he says.

Rupert Brooke dreamed of deep meadows and 
certainty in this part of Cambridgeshire. Both are disappearing fast.

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