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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 August 2005, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Defending the green belt
by Paula Dear
BBC News website

Tim Harrold, CPRE Surrey
Tim wants to hand down a green Guildford to the next generation

Green belt campaigner Tim Harrold stands on the edge of a field in his home county of Surrey and makes a grand sweeping gesture towards the horizon. "Isn't it lovely?" he says.

Unfortunately, he adds, this country lane will soon become a park-and-ride facility for more than 400 cars, complete with street lights and a roundabout.

"Isn't it lovely" is a phrase Mr Harrold repeats several times as we drive around the edges of Guildford, taking in its green belt 'hot spots'. It is, undeniably, lovely, and he and his colleagues believe they have to defend it to the last.

The arguments are as old as the green belt. In the case of the park and ride, with congestion and the environment to consider the scheme is an essential part of the county's transport strategy, says the council, but the CPRE disagrees with its location and its viability.

Battle lost

Mr Harrold is speaking on the 50th anniversary of the first government circular that told councils to look at designating areas of green belt land in England.

Countryside campaigners say the green belt - the 'lungs' around towns and cities - is "under threat as never before", while the government insists it is being "maintained and increased".

Jim Andy standing across from his house
I feel sad for people who visit here and want to see Surrey, because we have not defended our green belt
Jim Andy, resident

For volunteers at the Surrey branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) - of which Mr Harrold is chairman - there are several green areas in the vicinity that are cause for concern.

One battle that's already been lost is over expansion plans at the University of Surrey.

Jim Andy, 59, lives on the edge of the land the university has owned since the 1960s, but had previously only partially developed.

In 1987 it was designated as green belt land, but 10 years later the university successfully argued at a public inquiry that it should be able to expand onto 60 hectares of it, having had planning permission to do so since it first bought the land.

It's a complex case, but in many ways the same arguments are being replicated around the country, particularly with educational institutions under pressure to take on more and more students.

Protect the countryside from urban sprawl
Encourage regeneration of sites within towns and cities
Prevent towns from merging into each other
Protect country setting of historic towns and cities
Source: CPRE

It's no comfort for Mr Andy, who can now see the development from his house. Large cranes in the distance show where the new buildings - some five storeys - will eventually sit.

New playing fields will occupy the field closest to his home, where he has lived since 1978.

He, Mr Harrold and another CPRE volunteer Brian Green tell me skylarks, deer and badgers will be threatened by the development.

"This was a hunting ground in medieval times, it's always been green," says Mr Andy.

The group had a raft of objections to the university's plans, a major one being that it could make better use of the space it already occupies.

Green belt Guildford, with university development in distance
The cranes in the distance will be replaced by five-storey buildings

Some buildings on campus are unnecessarily rented out to outside organisations, including the local BBC radio station, and car parks that could be put underground take up vast amounts of land, according to Mr Harrold.

"This stretch of land is like a green lung, but the view will soon be significantly changed," says Mr Andy.

"I feel sad for people who visit here and want to see Surrey, because we have not defended our green belt as we should have."

Right to view?

But Dr Malcolm Parry, planning officer at the university, said the development was being carried out in a "highly sustainable" way, for example with few parking spaces, a bus service for students, and careful landscaping.

With the accommodation being built - even taking into account the projected rise in student numbers - fewer would have to live off campus, thereby easing the pressure on housing in the town, he said.

People want to belong to a place with a distinctive character...otherwise we just become an amorphous blob
Tim Harrold, CPRE Surrey

"Nobody has a right to a view. We are talking about people looking over our development from three-quarters of a mile away," said Dr Parry.

But for Tim Harrold - who has campaigned on this issue since 2000 - there's a lot of history, and the future, at stake.

"Some of the countryside in Surrey is of such high quality that to damage it would be awful. You would never see it again."

He is worried about plans to build nearly 29,000 houses per year in the south-east of England.

Site for park and ride
Green today, gone tomorrow? A park and ride is planned here

Driving along the A3, he says it's always had a lovely "green feel" to it. He points out one sloping field that could be the site of 2,000 houses if Guildford doesn't build its allocation of new homes on brownfield (previously used) sites.

"We should maintain the separation of our communities with these green corridors. And who would want to live here, next to the motorway? We would be creating the ghettos of the future.

"People want to belong to a place with a sort of distinctive character and not just be joined on to the next place - otherwise we just become an amorphous blob."

What they want is for towns to be regenerated and their centres "kept alive" rather than green areas built over, he says.

"There will be huge resistance if the green belt is threatened any more. It is the best understood piece of land use planning there is. People understand the need for it like they understand the need for the NHS."

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