May I say at once that the designation of the green belt is not a measure for the protection of the countryside.’
JR James, a senior civil servant in a talk to the CPRE, 1959.
(Im grateful for Sam Stafford for this quote.
This quote may come as a surprise. However the Abercrombie Plan and the 1955 Green Belt circular never set this out as an objective.
Rather the aim was to shape urban growth preventing urban sprawl through displacing growth to New Towns and growth areas. The envisaged area of the Metropolitan Green Belt in the Abercrombie plan was around 1/5th of what it is today.
It was not a means of protecting the countryside, it could not be as countryside would still be lost, just on different places.
There was always a tension. The CPRE opposed the 1946 New Towns Act as it said all brownfield sites should be developed first. They therefore rejected one half of the great planning post war bargain. Also a ministry pamphlet from the 1950s celebrating the Green Belt was replete with photos of people picnicking in the North Downs, even through this was protected in postwar plans anyway (though not formally as AONB till 1968) and the 1955 circular (unlike the Abercrombie Plan) did not cite open space and recreation as a Green Belt purpose. Protecting land for agriculture was added and then later taken away.
This then is the great tension. As long as there is a national policy of strategic planning to displace housing from the Green Belt then countryside protection is not a policy aim, but as soon as this falls away then in political terms (whatever national policy says) it becomes a defacto aim as all the public sees is a Green Belt Policy protecting beautiful countryside.
This ten is the clue to reform of the Green Belt. The secret is to avoid ist being seen as a policy shift threating beautiful countryside.
Green Belt policy has adopted this ‘countryside protection’ fake purpose because consecutive post war conservative governments have avoided saying where development should go and delegated it to local authorities to say where it should not go.
Hence 3/4s of the Metropolitan Green Belt is the result of ‘non planning’ the aim of counties to displace growth to the next along county.
Also the post-war Green Belt was defined by a technical constraint that no longer applies. So for example the northern line was not extended past Edgeware because it was full. Modern signaling and express lines, such as crossrail 1 and 2 (proposed) would no longer suffer from this constraint.