There are plans afoot to reform the planning system, but reforming the green belt won’t necessarily result in the countryside’s disappearance

Paul smith bw 2018

We recently saw the publication of the Raynsford review, outlining a series of recommendations to reform the planning system. 

Yet there’s always one elephant in the room: the green belt. Its existence is never called into question, its value never queried.  

The green belt is the part of the planning system most familiar to the public. Everyone knows its purpose – it prevents development. When anyone attempts to suggest that we might want to think again about the role and the extent of the green belt, the reaction is usually swift and negative. 

The government recognises that the green belt is the planning system’s emblem. To review it would be political suicide

The green belt is sacrosanct. To reform it would surely be to allow developers to run riot across the countryside, swallowing it up beneath a sea of concrete. 

Yet reform doesn’t have to mean a planning free-for-all.

Since 1997 the green belt has increased in size by almost 75,000 acres (enough for almost 900,000 homes). And while it might have reduced in area in the last 10 years – by 0.3% (around 12,000 acres) – it hardly seems under threat. In fact, more of the country is green belt (13%) than is developed (9%).

Green belt policy has been extremely successful in restricting building, with development rates one-third lower than they would otherwise be. The government recognises that the green belt is a constraint on development, but it also recognises it is the planning system’s emblem. To review it would be political suicide. 

Instead, it has created a fudge. National policy is worded to allow development of the green belt in “exceptional” or “very special” circumstances, but it is left to local councils to decide where these exist. When councils are also tasked with delivering enough new homes to meet need, they often have little choice but to allocate areas of green belt for development. That sleight of hand results, inevitably, in public distrust of the planning system.

In its current incarnation, the green belt is intended to perform five separate functions. These include stopping settlements from sprawling into the countryside or merging with each other, encouraging regeneration, and protecting the setting of historic towns. In each case, it achieves that objective by simply preventing the vast majority of development.

Very few people would dispute that those objectives of the policy are sensible. In its current form, though, the inflexibility of the policy results in negative outcomes too.

Today’s planning system aims to deliver sustainable development, and sustainable development is about balance. While protecting green fields from development is a positive outcome of the policy, it has undesirable impacts too. It’s undoubtedly a contributor to the 300% rise in average house prices seen since 1997 - eight of the ten most unaffordable towns and cities in England are constrained by green belt.

Higher house prices contribute towards economic problems (such as a less mobile labour force) and social ones (such as the increasing number of young people who are unable to afford their own home). By forcing development to leapfrog the green belt into the countryside beyond, it contributes towards environmental problems too as people become more dependent on cars for longer commutes.

Nor does green belt do some of the things people think it does. For instance, it doesn’t act as some sort of “quality mark” for landscape or ecological value.

With today’s Plan-led system aiming to deliver sustainable development, it seems unlikely you would conceive of green belt if it didn’t already exist. Let’s try to separate the policy from the objectives of the policy for a moment. What are the types of land that the planning system should try to protect from development? The list might include greenfield sites where there are enough brownfield ones to meet need; areas of landscape value; areas of ecological value; areas that stop settlements from merging; areas that form part of important views of historic towns.

Why not give each of those its own policy designation? Some areas of the current green belt will perform many of those functions, others none at all. Some areas which are not currently green belt will perform many of those functions too.

It is surely possible to re-imagine green belt policy in a way that protects areas that warrant that protection, but that allows an adequate supply of homes to be built in a way that better meets the objectives of sustainable development.

Most of the countryside has never been green belt and it’s still there. There are plenty of examples of non-green belt areas of countryside where development has been prevented because there are already enough sites to meet the need for housing and employment land. 

By re-thinking the green belt we would then have a much clearer picture of the harm that would be caused when decisions are being made on where to locate new development.

We certainly wouldn’t see the countryside disappear beneath a carpet of new homes.