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Green mantle: Hampshire's green belt

The progenitor of Outrage records the birth of a green belt around the growing cities of Portsmouth, Southampton and Bournemouth

Originally published in AR November 1959, this piece was republished online in August 2017

Green mantle aerial

Green mantle aerial

‘For many parts of the British Isles all the separate urbanizations we have been practising are beginning to coalesce. This was the moral of Outrage, and the proof is in this air photograph of part of Southampton Water’

Four years ago the Ministry of Housing sent out a now famous circular on provincial green belts. In terms that it is probably fair to say were kept deliberately vague it suggested that the green belt idea could be applied to any large town. It did not say which towns, and it did not suggest how big the green belt should be; the interpretation was left entirely to the recipients, which meant the County Councils.

Most counties took this to mean an equivalent in size and shape to the London Green Belt, applied to the bigger conurbations. Some of the conurbations proved amenable; most showed that their councillors were still living in the 1920’s, convinced that a bigger city must be a better city. One of the more flagrant examples was Birmingham’s recent application for 2,000 acres of Warwickshire and Worcestershire which went to public inquiry in July; accompanied by a fine selection of aldermanic baby talk: ‘land only supporting cows and sheep’ and so on. Other counties, such as Durham, tried the reasonable and logical step of establishing green belts around all the larger towns in the county – e.g., Darlington and West Hartlepool – only to find that the elected representatives thereof had somehow never conceived of such things as applying to them.

One county went much further than this. Hampshire took the Ministry’s circular in its widest sense, saw that its whole coastline was running together, partly in a sort of second degree sprawl from London (the principle being that if you have to jump the green belt you then might as well jump as far as the coast), partly because it was a natural place for people to retire to, partly through the growth of Portsmouth, Southampton and Bournemouth, partly through the drift to the South. It would be difficult to find a better place to show all the elements of unplanned decentralization brought together. The county council treated the area from Havant to the Dorset border as a potential conurbation and designated an expanded version of the green belt – what might be termed a green mantle – over the whole area, about ten miles deep leaving a little land for expansion round each of the big centres. They selected a number of rural or semi-rural villages therein as suitable for limited expansion (in each case providing town maps) and provided for the other villages to be enlarged only in cases of proved local need. The proposals went on the Ministry last October, closely followed by protests from Portsmouth and Southampton (who both actually said, of the proposals for a belt between them: yes, a very good idea, as long as it starts at Titchfield Haven. As this is a creek exactly halfway between them, it would have been the thinnest green belt on record). In February the Ministry replied saying that these proposals were a major enlargement of green belt ideas and asked the county council to justify them to the extent of showing that the land set aside for expansion would meet any foreseeable requirements until 1971.

‘Portsmouth proved to be a copybook case of the bone-headed county borough unable to think in any other terms but peripheral expansion and bigger and better rateable value’

In other words, Hampshire was to be the nation’s guinea-pig: overspill and growth figures were for the first time to be made the subject of a really painstaking calculation; a calculation which surely should have had the assistance of a research team at the Ministry, as the whole nation would benefit from the result. Instead, the onus was thrown entirely on an already overworked county planning staff. In three months they did exactly what was asked for, and they did it the hard way. They assessed the number of vacant acres in each area, they assessed where possible (from rejected applications) what the average builder thought he could get on to these acres; then they computed the number of people that could be housed, using a mixture of 3.2 persons per dwelling where dwelling plots could be guessed at, and unexceptionable net residential densities averaging about 18 persons per acre for the remainder. The population increase from all causes was obtained by projecting the 1951-57 trends as far as 1971 (allowing for the increase in immigration since licensing restrictions were ended in 1953). In eleven out of the twelve areas concerned these results showed that the land allocated would provide for more than the estimated increase in population, by amounts ranging from a few hundred people to twenty -five thousand. Only one district – Havant – showed an estimated deficit, of six thousand people or approximately ten per cent of the estimated surplus in all the other areas.

Green mantle p1

Green mantle p1

Put very briefly, what this marathon survey showed was that even applying stringent green belt proposals to the whole of an area there is still enough land available, in the undeveloped plots or immediately next to existing villages, to cope with any demand at least to the 1970’s (there is really no point in planning further ahead than this). It is a conclusion which common sense and common observation forces on anyone who goes about the countryside with open eyes, but that is a very different thing from proving it in cold figures in one of the most vulnerable areas in the country.

The public inquiry was held in July; the chief objectors being, as expected, Portsmouth and Southampton county boroughs. Southampton’s objections were to some extent disagreements in detail between friends, as in fact a green belt had been agreed with the county council in 1954 before the Ministry circular ever came out. But Portsmouth proved to be a copybook case of the bone-headed county borough unable to think in any other terms but peripheral expansion and bigger and better rateable value. At one stage it actually proposed a green belt which would begin at Butser Hill, twelve miles from the city, which for those who know Hampshire is occasion for quiet mirth. It wanted to build on the Southwick estate, just north of Portsdown, which is true countryside, well farmed, high grade agricultural land, and a blessed relief to inhabitants of the Portsmouth byelaw streets and council estates, which are as dreary as they could be. The county council proposals for Portsmouth’s problem were crisp and constructive: no new incursions into rural areas, proper building up of the weird satellite at Leigh Park, north of Havant (it is unfortunate for the Portsmouth city fathers that the county council could show that there is still sufficient corporation land at Leigh Park to take another 2,400 houses, and that contracts there had been suspended at the very same time as Portsmouth were wanting to build on the Southwick estate), and in particular the building up of Hayling Island which seems the natural solution to any of Portsmouth’s overspill problems. Hayling Island has been left out of the green area entirely; with one new road bridge from Eastney it could make Portsmouth into a twin-island city with room for everyone. These proposals are combined with eloquent comment, directed at Southampton also, on the need for proper city redevelopment and urban renewal at the centre, which anyone who has walked around the centre of Portsmouth can endorse.

‘Perhaps for the first time a county planning office is living up to the positive and comprehensive spirit in which the planning machinery was originally conceived’

In fact, the county council sees the green mantle as only the first step, the next being proper renewal in the city centres and careful control – which they think they can maintain – over the villages selected for expansion, so that they become or remain real places, not just collections of separate building units. And the actual list of these villages, to one who knows the county, makes one very hopeful about the county council’s ability to achieve this: they are either shrunken small towns, which Hampshire has a lot of and which need more people to stay viable – Ringwood, Wickham, Romsey – or else existing areas of sporadic building which can only benefit from infilling and enlargement – Colden Common, Denmead, Bransgore. The compact nucleated villages like Hambledon or Beaulieu are to be left alone and will be subject to conditions of consent as strict as apply to the villages in the London Green Belt. This in fact is the only solution for large areas of Great Britain if we are to keep any real countryside at all and not descend to a complete mixing of all the landscape elements, however well designed, which is foisted off as a new type of landscape in the USA mainly because its protagonists can’t think what on earth to do with it or how to stop it. What has happened to southern Hampshire ought to be applied in every area where the natural town-country rhythms are breaking down: northern Cheshire, the Lothians, at least half of the West Riding, the Vale of Glamorgan. The map of the Green Belt shows that Hampshire was only just in time. If the proposals are not substantially confirmed regional planning as a whole in this country might as well go and pack its bags. If they are confirmed the way is clear for a dozen other counties to go and do likewise, and as soon as possible.

Green mantle map

Green mantle map

There is a double reason for this haste. The rapidity of urban growth is the obvious one, but the other came to light slyly in the summary of objections tendered by Portsmouth at the public inquiry. This suggested that the green belt proposals should be suspended until the local government Boundary Commission has announced its findings on the Portsmouth area (Portsmouth having gone to them recently with a request for another large slice of rural cake). This Commission has been sitting all over the country, and there is no way of telling what it will recommend, but if it suggests that the County Boroughs take in more land from the Counties – which heaven forbid – there is nothing on earth which will prevent that land being built on if it is not already scheduled as green belt (a determined council and its lawyers could probably build on it, green belt and all, but at least the business would have to come out in the open). There may only be a few months left; if the counties affected would put in the time and trouble to designate equivalent green belts the nation as a whole would be in their debt. It is already in debt to Hampshire for its courage in making these proposals in the first place and then for its energy and enthusiasm in carrying them through. Perhaps for the first time a county planning office is living up to the positive and comprehensive spirit in which the planning machinery was originally conceived.