There is a need for a Welsh equivalent to Green belt, to fringe our urban areas, to help focus out of town and fringe of town developments, not to mention helping to protect rural green spaces between and within some of our urban areas. It's worth noting that 'Green belt' is a useful planning tool, which was introduced for London in 1938 but then ended up being rolled out to England as a whole by a government circular in 1955. The original idea was that the opportunity to develop green belt which would allow local councils to designate green belts when they wanted to restrict urban growth.
Now this idea worked and worked well, as of 2007, Green belt covered something like 13% of England (around one-and-a-half million hectares) which despite the best efforts of previous Conservative and New Labour Governments it is still relatively well protected both by normal planning controls and against "inappropriate development" within its boundaries. Wales only has one notional green belt, and that lies between Cardiff and Newport, Scotland has seven and Northern Ireland has 30 - each has its own policy guidance. it is important to note that once the Green belt or Green wedge is gone it is gone for ever, we cannot restore it.
In the south east, along the coastal belt around Newport and in and around Torfaen, the last twenty years has seen a significant if not spectacular growth in the amount of housing, a significant percentage of which was never aimed to fulfil local housing needs. As a result the infrastructure along the coastal belt between Chepstow, Caldicot, Rogiet and Magor is struggling to cope with existing developments and this is well before the projected expansion of housing on and around the former Llanwern site. The north of Newport has now been linked effectively to the south Cwmbran - something that has brought little material benefit to either urban area.
In Torfaen, there are on going plans to literally fill in the gap between Pontnewydd and Sebastopol - this development was vigorously (and rightly in my opinion) opposed in the 1990's by the "Fight the Plan" campaign group . The original development proposals, aim to include 1,200 new homes, shops, playing
fields, and a school, and a community centre, these were effectively rubber stamped by Torfaen council (in 2005), but developers were unable complete a legal agreement in time so it never took place.
However, these things never quite go away and now there is a new development consortium (which now includes the Welsh Development Agency, Crest Strategic Projects Ltd and Barratt South Wales) which has decided to revisit the old development plans, with a view to submitting them in the spring. So much for sustainability, while it would be too much, on past experience to expect Torfaen County Council to do anything other than rubber stamp the proposals, they have been hell bent on maximising as much housing development as possible over recent years. One question we need to ask about many of these proposed housing developments is just exactly for what pressing need do they fill locally, or are we merely engaged in attempting to grow housing for its own stake or to maximise construction company profit?
The National Assembly should know better and act accordingly, the institution is supposed to have sustainability enshrined in its actions, but, at times you really have to wonder, especially when it comes to the impact of some of the proposed developments on our communities. We need to protect the green wedges around and within our urban communities. The problem caused by a lack of protection to our Green wedges, etc is aggravated by the fact that what one generation of elected officials (and council officers) envisages as a green wedge, green lane, etc is often seen by later generations of elected officials (and council officers) as either prime land for development or a nice little earner to help balance out the books - this means that there is a lack of stability and a long term vision for many of our urban areas.
We need to take the long view and create Welsh Green belt land with the legal and planning protections then, we might go some way to calming things down when it comes to development planning and also manage to introduce a more long term element into the process by which our elected officials (and council officers) plan and view development and redevelopment within and around our urban and not so urban communities. This is something that could be accomplished by creating Welsh Green belt land, as part of the process we also need an urgent and open debate into the planning process in Wales - something that has been long overdue.