There had been rumblings for the notion of a Green Belt around Durham back in the 1960s, when the Ministry of Housing and Local Government had asked for proposals. However, the idea of extending the Green Belt, which was essentially around the Newcastle conurbation, arose when RPG 7 in 1993 included a policy for a significant southward extension into Durham as well as an expansion within Tyne & Wear. This was not especially controversial...
The Durham County Structure Plan developed the policy. Strikingly, the EiP Panel in December 1996 proposed a much more major extension of the Tyne & Wear Green Belt than anyone had expected covering the whole of North Durham. This included large areas of Easington (to the east) and Derwentside (to the west) as well as Chester-Le-Street and the protection of Durham City itself. This was an embarrassment to the Government Office and further consultations were carried out.
This resulted particularly in the removal of the proposed designation from many rural areas of Derwentside and Easington, leaving the old coal mining areas outside the Green Belt. However, a tongue of Green Belt continued southwards to include Durham City, as RPG 7 had specified. The Plan was adopted in 1999.
The subsequent Regional Planning Guidance for the North East, which became RPG 1, considered proposals for the further extension of the Green Belt to cover a larger area around Durham City and to convert the green wedge in the Tees Valley into Green Belt. At the Panel's recommendation, all the major extensions proposed by campaigners were rejected.
District councils in Durham (plus the unitaries in the metropolitan area to the north) have all been preparing their own plans to implement the strategic policy. For example, the Durham City Local Plan was adopted in May 2004, in line with the Structure Plan. In Northumberland, the County Council has been interested in using the Structure Plan to extend the Green Belt to encompass Morpeth and this has generally been considered a sensible idea.
They focused on preventing unrestricted sprawl of Newcastle/Gateshead into Chester-Le-Street and Derwentside and of Sunderland towards Seaham. There was a coalescence issue between Chester-Le-Street and Durham, and the issue of protecting the setting of the World Heritage Site of Durham City. Furthermore, the Green Belt was seen as encouraging the regeneration of urban areas and as a means of encouraging revival in the depressed old mining towns of north Durham.
There were, of course, economic arguments against these and they were particularly pronounced, and essentially accepted, in respect of the impact of a Green Belt on the whole of north Durham (as proposed by the EiP Panel). In particular, covering the old mining villages in Green Belt was seen as killing off the only hope of securing at least some development in these settlements.
Much can be attributed in the process to the perception of county-designated land at the time. The Government was perceived as restraining counties from using such designations effectively, with pressure in Durham to abandon Areas of Great Landscape Value and a similar wildlife designation in favour of composite Areas of Landscape Value.
This was viewed by the public as a downgrading, and therefore a threat to the restraint policies which had long protected Durham's setting. Not everyone took this view, so the extension of the Green Belt around Durham City would not have happened automatically.
There was no divide between counties and districts on this issue, but a variety of views within each authority. The support for so significant an extension to the Green Belt was essentially officer-led, particularly by officers in Durham County Council and Durham City Council. As the proposal developed and the Structure Plan proceeded, the issue became more political. Obtaining officer support was particularly critical in securing the new Green Belt.
The campaign for a Green Belt was led by the Ramblers Association, CPRE and Save Our City. It was a well-organised campaign and used arguments significant in the context of County Durham. Furthermore, there was no coordinated opposition or concerted campaign against it. There was no large body of opponents and the compromise arrangement on the extent of the Green Belt was broadly accepted by opponents.
Broadly speaking, this Green Belt has been successful, notably in encouraging urban regeneration and (which otherwise would have been most unlikely to happen) in encouraging development in the mining villages: the argument seems to be that there was nowhere else for developers to go!