Few policies first instituted by government in 1938 survive anymore. The passage of seventy-five years, a World War, the formation of the welfare state, Thatcher’s radicalism and globalisation have combined to kill off the certainties of a pretty infamous time.
There are one or two exceptions, and one of these is the green belt. First introduced for London in the year of the Munich debacle, the concept was extended by the post-war Labour government in 1947 and rolled out by their successors in 1955. It is a term that conjures up images of bucolic English countryside, full of rolling hills and copses of ancient English oaks.
That’s nonsense of course. A better idea of what the green belt actually looks like can be found as you drive round the M25 and are rewarded with a vista of mostly lifeless scrub. A green belt is better characterised as a green noose, strangling our major cities (mainly – but not exclusively – London), increasing inequalities within them and exacerbating the acute housing crisis.
You do not need a degree in economics to realise that one reason why property prices in London are so high is because not enough houses – of the sort people want to live and raise families in in particular – are being built. The obvious solution is to expand London and build some of these houses on the land that is sitting there, unused and protected thanks to an edict passed by Neville Chamberlain’s government.
But such sense runs into huge protests by green belt fetishists, such as Simon Jenkins, who lauds UKIP for apparently being the only party that cares about the British countryside. It’s hardly surprising that UKIP are the loudest against any sort of development: their key constituency is the old and the fearful, so any sort of change is to be resisted, even if the voters such a message is aimed at are more likely to live in a depressed seaside town than near a green belt.
Indeed, selling the idea that we need to develop the green belt is not an easy one for any political party, mostly thanks to people like Jenkins propagating the idea that the green belt is an untouchable oasis of rural Britain. Yet eventually those so against any development are going to have to answer the question of why their children can’t afford to buy a place in London to raise their grandchildren, despite their good jobs, and why their offspring keep having to pay more and more in rent to protect a scrubby field next to a major motorway.
People don’t always vote for their own selfish interests. They are generally concerned to see that their children have a good life as well, a life that includes the realisation of that very British dream of owning your own house. It is not hard to make this argument, but it is vitally important. Without some acknowledgement of the need to expand our cities, green belt conservatives like Jenkins have won – and it is not the likes of him, comfortable ensconced in their own house and enjoying its huge appreciation in value over the past few years, that will suffer.