The Green Belt is important, but so are the people who need somewhere to live

'The government wants to build thousands of new houses in the Green Belt' (PA)

Earth Day rather passed my by, I have to admit. Indeed, not only did I not celebrate it in any way, but I did not notice anyone else doing so. The first inkling I had of it was from the links provided by Luke Coppen, our editor’s, daily Morning Catholic Must reads.

It is refreshing to read that the Pope paid a surprise visit to the Villa Borghese in Rome to join in the Earth Day celebrations. The Villa Borghese, as most tourists know, is central Rome’s largest park, one of the very few green spaces in a densely packed urban landscape. Originally laid out for the delectation of one noble family and its guests, it is now a sad shadow of its former self, being very poorly maintained. A tidy up of Rome’s degraded parks would be a good way of marking Earth Day. I wonder if anyone marking the event in the Villa Borghese, amid broken statuary, graffiti-covered walls, discarded syringes and tons of litter, thought of doing this?

Meanwhile, in a similar environmental strain, we are informed that the Green Belt in England is under threat. This is undoubtedly the case. The government wants to build thousands of new houses in the Green Belt. These applications have been made in the hope that at least some of them will not be refused, and represent an attempt to breach the very stringent restrictions on new building on virgin land, in view of the desperate housing shortage in the south east of England.

The truth of the matter is that strict planning controls will lead to a housing shortage; if you want to preserve the Green Belt, this comes at a cost: in cities like Oxford, houses are unaffordable for people who are not very rich. Oxford cannot expand because of its Green Belt; and the towns around Oxford are saturated with people who have moved from Oxford. It will soon be difficult for people who are on middle incomes or less to live and work in Oxford. It is hard to see how the city can continue to prosper if these circumstances continue.

Needless to say, I do not want to see the Green Belt turned into a concrete jungle. I am merely pointing out that our restrictive planning laws come at a price, as do all so-called environmentally-friendly policies. By all means, let’s “save” the Earth; but who pays? Generally it seems to be the less well-off.

The only real long-term solution to the problems of the south east of England and its housing shortage, which does not involve the sacrifice of the Green Belt, is either the wholesale demotion of large swathes of London, and the building of high density housing in their place (that means flats), or else the removal from London of as many government departments as possible, as well as institutions, such as universities, that don’t really need to be there, or a combination of the two.

But one thing is clear: we can’t go on as at present. People need decent and affordable places to live. Family life depends on it. This is not simply an environmental issue, it’s a Catholic one too. The Earth matters, of course it does, but so do the people who live on it.