The green belt concept was first brought forward in 1935 by the Greater London Regional Planning committee as a way of inhibiting urban growth. The proposal’s agenda was to provide “a reserve supply of open public spaces and recreational areas while establishing a green belt or belt of open space.”
A few years later, The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 allowed local authorities to incorporate green belt proposals into their plans of development. As of now, England has about 14 separate green belts which vary in size. The largest is around the capital and is 486,000 hectares while the smallest is around Burton on Trent and is just 700 hectares.
The supporters of the green belt see it as a way of conserving Britain’s beautiful landscape and cherished rural heritage, while its opposers view it as an inhibitor to the much-needed development while being a significant factor towards the high housing costs.
Interestingly, however, the appearance or quality of land is not factored when it is being designated as green belt, and on most occasions, the earth is not even ‘green.’ Nevertheless, any suggestion that this land should be utilised for housing purposes is firmly rejected by those who view any incursion into these areas as encouraging urban sprawl.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England undertook a survey in 2015 where they found out that close to 60 percent of urban dwellers believe green belt land should be protected. However, even the most ardent supporters of green belt admit that some of this land is not as attractive and can be quite challenging to access. The more attractive stretches of these spaces are often additionally protected by the designation of ‘ancient woodland’ or ‘area of outstanding beauty.’
The Dire Need for Housing in the UK
We are facing a housing crisis in the UK which needs to be solved by constructing over a million homes over the next five years. However, we need land to build them on. London School of Economics’ Alan Mace suggested that this could be possible by opening corridors along major transport roads, such as the London-Cambridge road where Harlow lies. He visualises ‘garden cities’ on these routes as being part of the solution.
At the moment, changes to green belt boundaries can only be implemented under exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless, a 2015 report by the Adam Smith Institute advocated for the abolishing of green belt areas altogether but leaving more specific spaces such as those of natural beauty or environmental importance.
The report estimated that if just 3.7% of London’s green belt were freed, there would be enough land for over a million houses. Overall, it only requires half a percentage of the United Kingdom’s green belt to fulfil the entire housing need, which is estimated at two million homes over the next ten years.
Thus, the UK needs to find a solution to its housing crisis, and the greenbelt land should be one of the options considered while searching for a workable resolution.
In October 2017, the government, using the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), released guidance on the safeguarding of green belt land. A subsequent report by the DCLG (Department for Communities and Local Government) recommended that brown-field land to be prioritised and that Councils need to use their Local Plan to protect their local areas against urban sprawl while safeguarding the green lands around cities and towns.
The DCLG suggests that once green belt boundaries have been established, they should only be changed in exceptional scenarios and that these changes should only be carried out after reviewing the local plan. As such, housing should not be a justification for harming green belt land.
The guidance goes further to emphasise that the NPPF must be considered in its entirety and that the housing needs are not the only issues to be considered while designing a Local Plan, they are just part of the process. After that, the local planning authority will formulate a tactical housing-land availability examination which will consider factors such as:
• Areas of scientific interest.
• Heritage coast.
• Places safeguarded under the Habitats and Birds Directives.
• Designated heritage assets.
• Lands designated as green belt.
• Locations at risk of coastal erosion or flooding.
• Locations of exceptional natural beauty.
• Local green space.
• National parks or the broad.
Additionally, greenbelt must not be confused with green-field or open-countryside development. It is, however, understandable that people can use them synonymously, yet they are not.
This explains why there wasn’t a policy conflict when, during an interview in BBC2’s Newsnight in 2012, Nick Boles, the then planning minister, suggested that over 388,000 hectares of open-countryside are what were required to meet housing demands. He advocated for protecting the green belt while maintaining that if people wanted homes for their families and future generations, they need to accept that open land needs to be built on.
Thus, the green belt is an exact planning policy designation and not a general policy that applies to the entire countryside, and its purpose is to offer more protection from inappropriate construction on greenbelt designated areas.
The government maintains that the greenbelt needs to be protected at all costs. However, it acknowledges that developmental needs have to be considered in areas such as open countryside where there are no specific constraints from planning policy.
Nevertheless, in the past year, applications have been submitted to build an additional 35,000 houses on green belt land. This has taken the total number of proposals to build on this land to 460,000.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) recently released data which revealed that over 24,000 homes had been built on greenbelt land over the past nine years. The 2018 State of the Green Belt report demonstrates that the number of completed houses constructed in the greenbelt areas to have increased by twofold over the past year to about 8,000.
And even though protecting these designated zones has been a top Government priority, many campaigners believe that some of this controlled land can be freed to enable the construction of the much-needed affordable new houses.
Most of this building, however, has been on brownfield tracts within the greenbelt lands. Nevertheless, data suggests that the majority of houses constructed on greenfield greenbelt land are very costly and unattainable for the average buyer. Nonetheless, about 27 percent of the homes approved or been built on greenfield land have obeyed the law’s explanation of inexpensive housing.
The data collected by the CPRE from a variety of sources were, however, released a while after the government has released its reviewed version.
In this new framework, ministers overruled campaigners and other groups that were calling for a complete ban on building within the greenbelt lands. Nevertheless, they did not agree to loosen some of the green belt rules that developers wanted altering.
The revised policy has it that ‘The restrictions in place are for preventing the steady destruction of boundaries that marked the green belt over time while maintaining openness. However, the revised framework does make it clear that plans can be implemented to provide inexpensive housing to satisfy the needs of the local population.
Over 2017 and 2018 the Campaign to Protect Rural England discovered that out of the 8,000 homes constructed on the greenbelt land, 4,800 were built on brownfield tracts, while 3,330 were erected on land that was previously undeveloped. This is considerably different from 2016 to 2017 where over 4,000 homes were built with fewer than 1,000 being on greenfield tracts.
Developments such as these only represent a minute portion of the land that is considered as the green belt in the UK. The 315 hectares that were used for construction over the past year only make up 0.0002 percent of the United Kingdom’s 1.6 million hectares of green belt land.
It is also worth noting that the green belt policy was employed on the grounds of preventing urban sprawl, and not to protect the beautiful countryside.