The fields at Lye Lane are not the English countryside of popular imagination.
The heavy treads of dirt bike tyres have lacerated the once dense shrub land into a tangle of yellow paths. The roar of articulated lorries passing on the nearby M1 motorway completes the charmless setting.
And yet, this 65 acres of exhaust-smudged scrub on the outskirts of St Albans has become the battleground for a clash between ambitious developers, who want to turn it into a carehome, and a community who like things the way they are. The dispute is typical of the intractable discussions happening across Britain, as the population struggles to balance the need for development with a passion for rural preservation.
“We are a city under siege from developers,” says Anne Main, MP for St Albans. The city sits in the centre of the economically fertile and predominantly Conservative commuter crust that skirts the northern fringes of London. As well as the Lye Lane project, there are a host of other developments awaiting planning permission in the area, including a 300-acre rail freight terminal.
Ms Main says developers are “parking their tanks on our lawn”.
Successive governments have struggled to reconcile the opposing needs for development and rural protection. In spite of widespread recognition that Britain needs more houses – the 137,000 homes the country produced last year is the lowest output since the 1920s and about half of annual demand – developments tend to be met by staunch resistance.
A flagship policy of the coalition has been to decentralise the planning process and give local communities the power to meet their housing and commercial property needs. This has done little to stimulate the housing market, however, as many councils have been inclined towards resisting development in the face of local opposition.
In a bid to breathe life into economy, the government on Thursday introduced measures to promote construction. These included a relaxation of rules requiring developers to build a proportion of affordable homes in new housing projects and other steps to streamline the planning process.
The changes are likely to have the biggest impact in many of the Conservative constituencies around London’s greenbelt. The cominbination of proximity to the capital and rural surroundings stimulate house prices, making these areas highly coveted by developers.
“There is a huge need for new housing across the south-east,” says John Stewart, director of economic affairs at the Home Builders Federation, the industry’s trade body. “It is not always possible to supply all the required housing on brownfield sites.”
The view is echoed by many developers, who argue much greenfield land is underutilised and largely ignored by local communities until the prospect of turning it into something else is raised.
In the case of the Lye Lane care home project, the developer, who could not be reached for comment, is planning to turn 40 of the 65 acres back into open green space for the public in an effort to assuage local concerns. The estate agent acting on the scheme said it would provide a vital service to an area short on modern care homes.
However, for many of those who object to building on the greenbelt, the destruction of countryside is a secondary concern. The verdant shield that surrounds cities such as St Albans is the only thing that defines it as separate from the encroaching fingers of London’s sprawl.
“The greenbelt is already narrow, so if you start building on it you get coalescence between us and Watford and then what are we other than an extension of London?” says Ms Main.
“Our status as a greenbelt city is something that is very important to people here.”