The CPRE is wrong: there are not going to be 275,000 new homes on England's green belt

The only house built in Britain in the whole of 2014. Image: Getty.

Over the last two days, a depressingly high number of newspapers have published a story about the latest research (yes, research) from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). Its latest paper purports to show that England's green belt us under threat as never before – that...

....275,000 homes planned for England's Green Belt, an increase of 50,000 on last year and nearly 200,000 more than when the Government introduced its planning reforms back in March 2012.

Here's a tweet from Shaun Spiers, the chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, cheerily highlighting the Telegraph’s report on this research:

Note the fifth word there. "Undeniable". You're probably familiar with it - it's an adjective, meaning "unable to be denied or disputed". Undeniable. Got that?

Anyway, here I go, proving that Spiers is (undeniably) wrong: he's talking rubbish. You can tell that the threat is not undeniable, and the way you can tell is that here I am, denying it.

There is no threat to the green belt, on anything like this scale. I, for one, would weep few tears if there were plans to build 275,000 homes on the Green Belt land – but there aren't. As things stand, in the battle to end Britain's housing crisis, Spiers' CPRE is winning, while my Build More Bloody Houses faction is getting utterly trounced. This story is total bilge.

But let's assume for the moment that the CPRE hasn't just picked a random number out of the air, and look at where it actually got its numbers. Here’s what its paper says:

CPRE asked its county branches across England to tell us about any proposals in adopted or advanced local plans to release land from the Green Belt for housing development and other purposes.

(Local Plans are documents, in which councils explain how they're planning to change their built environment over the next few years.)

There are, clever people tell me, three problems with this approach. The first is that this seems to be a crowd-sourcing exercise in which local CPRE branches collected the figures and then chucked them into a central pot. It's not clear any independent audit of these numbers has taken place, so we can’t know how reliable they are. That’s a relatively minor problem.

The second, less minor problem, is that the CPRE seems to be listing any council that doesn’t yet a local plan as having no plans to build on its green belt. But local plans are still being written – there are fewer plan-free councils now than there were in 2012 or 2013.

As a result, what looks like a growing threat to the green belt...

....is in fact a growing tide of paper work.

That leads us to the last problem. These are just numbers on a council document, not spades in the ground – and new buildings still need individual planning permission. As I noted last week in my story on Birmingham – which actually is planning to build on its green belt – the council plans are coming under sustained attack from both local people and Westminster politicians. Inclusion in a local plan is no guarantee that anything will actually get built.

(Thanks to clever person Pete Jeffrys, of Shelter, for explaining all this.)

To be fair, the number of homes granted permission in the green belt has increased. Here's the paragraph of the CPRE research which contains the relevant figures:

Research by consultancy Glenigan in June 2015 for BBC Radio 4's File on 4 also found a sharp increase in the number of houses securing full planning approval in the Green Belt. In 2009/10, 2,258 homes were approved. By 2014/2015, it had risen to 11,977. This is a fivefold increase in five years.

And, to be fair, a five-fold increase is quite a big jump.

But let's put those numbers in perspective. Britain builds around 130,000 homes every year; it needs to build around 250,000. Under 12,000 homes? That's a rounding error.

 

There is not an undeniable threat to the green belt. There is barely a threat at all. Even as homelessness rises and housing costs shoot up into the sky, the ugly scrublands and chemically-contaminated potato farms of England remain untouchable.


The CPRE is getting what it wants, and then whining about it anyway. Nothing like a sore winner, is there?

Jonn Elledge edits CityMetric and tweets too much.

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.