Framing the green belt debate

Stephen Byfield, managing director of communications consultancy the PPS Group, argues that the debate on green belt development is distorted by emotive news reports from country idylls – why not talk to young people who desperately need new homes?

One of the barriers to green belt reform in the past 20 years has been the manner in which the debate has been framed. Take any newspaper, radio or TV piece you have heard on the subject in the past few weeks. To give the report context, the journalist invariably begins from the site of a “green belt battle”.

You know the sort of thing. Today presenter John Humphrys introduces Radio 4’s environment correspondent who has put his wellies on specially and is standing in a field outside Steeple Bumstead. An early morning mist is being burnt off by the rising sun. The snail is on the bud, the swallow on the wing and a light dew is underfoot. Our correspondent begins by explaining that all this is under threat. If he could underline “under threat” on the radio, he would.

The piece is given context and balance with an expert assessment that Britain needs many thousand billion new homes. They interview some poor sap from the housebuilding industry. The correspondent then talks to a selection of doughty middle class types defending their patch from the serried ranks of bulldozers. The message is clear. This, too, is a tale of simple country folk, albeit posh ones who are getting on a bit and have nothing better to do. It may be The Archers’ Linda Snell and her husband en masse, but at least they are standing up for all that is dear to our island race.

Should you get asked to contribute to a piece like this, you might start by challenging its premise. Why can’t a report about the green belt begin in an estate agent’s office in Oxford? Instead of lining up lots of well-off worthies, why not interview young people unable to buy a home and who face the prospect of rental payments that represent 40% of their take home pay? Give the piece some balance by asking someone from the CPRE if they think it is fair that the artificial suppression of development in the green belt pushes builders to rural areas further out and consigns a generation of home buyers to long commutes that pump tons of CO2 and NOX into the atmosphere.

The green belt plays a valuable role in preventing the coalescence of communities. But some green belt land is of poor quality and should be built upon. Whether we are allowed to do this will come down to how the debate is framed.

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