Building the green belt should be part of the UK’s response to the housing crisis, as long as more efforts are also made to improve the quality of urban green spaces, says England’s nature chief.
New housing and better protection of green spaces, wildlife and nature should not be seen as opposites, according to Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England. The “opposition mentality” that sees the two as “binary choices” does not reflect reality and is preventing local communities from finding ways to provide enough homes for people, whilst also restoring the UK’s declining species.
“What we need to do is think more about how we can accommodate high-quality nature in and around residential developments, not just to meet natural goals but also to promote social well-being,” he said in an interview with the Guardian . “Because we now know from a vast body of evidence that access to green space and water is very, very good for people’s well-being.”
The green belt shouldn’t be sacrosanct, he says. England could end up with less green belt than it currently has, but “better quality green belt – which could have more houses. If you look at many green belts around England, you will see that many of them are quite devoid of wildlife. They are not very accessible. Some of them aren’t producing much food either.”
Instead of a blanket defense of green belt land, the government and local communities should adopt “a more joined-up vision” that could see some new construction, but better conservation, and more green space where people need it.
“If we look at the economic benefits we get from accessing good quality, wildlife-rich green spaces, the economic value of that increases in proportion to the number of people who are able to reach them,” he says. “Placing forests in remote areas will have far fewer social benefits than placing forests in areas close to where people live.”
Juniper’s position contrasts with that of many activists for whom the green belt is a totemic issue and who resist its usurpation. But her pragmatic attitude was honed over the years she spent defending the scientific defense of nature with often skeptical ministers and civil servants, finding ways to push for bold action within the increasingly narrow officialdom.
A zoologist and conservationist by training, whose first area of study was parrots, he has long experience in occupying roles that others might consider to be entirely different. Before taking on the presidency of Natural England in 2019, Juniper combined leadership of the charity Friends of the Earth – generally considered one of the greenest activist groups, with more radical perspectives than Greenpeace – with advising King Charles when he He was Prince of Wales. .
Natural England is in charge of ensuring that green targets, such as protecting 30% of UK land by 2030, are met. But although these goals are still in place, government policy has changed in ways that many think will make the goals more difficult to achieve – or even impossible. Rishi Sunak has publicly taken an anti-green stance, with U-turns on several aspects of climate policy.
Nature policy has also been a battleground – the government announced in August that it would reverse nutrient policies that required house builders to make provisions for sewage. Nutrient regulations were designed to prevent further pollution of rivers, which are already under serious threat from water companies’ cavalier attitude towards sewage overflows from new housing.
After a fierce discussion over the proposals, the government backed down, but it is unclear what action the new Environment Secretary, Steve Barclay, who replaced Thérèse Coffey in this week’s reshuffle, will take.
Juniper, speaking before Barclay’s appointment but although there were rumors that Coffey would be replaced, said the nutrient neutrality scheme that Natural England had been piloting for around 18 months was working well.
“Frustrations are expressed in many places and we are criticized for delaying development. But I completely reject this, claiming that we are making a great effort to enable development, while at the same time allowing the government and the country to meet their very demanding targets for the recovery of nature,” he says.