The green belt is the most widely recognised part of the English planning system, but also one of the most widely misunderstood. 

Paul smith bw 2018

There are numerous pervading misconceptions, which continue to exacerbate the housing crisis:

“The green belt is a mark of high quality countryside” (it isn’t)

The green belt is just a planning policy designed to manage the growth of cities; it doesn’t denote landscape, ecological or any other quality. In fact, much of the green belt consists of previously developed land, poor quality grassland and roadside verges.

Countryside quality is covered by other designations. For example, high quality landscapes are denoted by National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, ecological quality is covered by designations like Sites of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserves. Those areas quite rightly have their own protections from development - but they aren’t green belt.

“The green belt is under threat like never before”

The green belt is huge. It covers around 13% of the country, compared to just 8% that is developed.

There are actually 29,690 hectares more green belt today than in 1997 - enough for around 42,000 football pitches. Whilst it’s true that some green belt has been released for development over recent years, the amount - 4,950 hectares over the last ten years - is small compared to its overall size. At current rates, it would take almost 3,000 years for all the green belt to be developed.

“Homes built in the green belt are too expensive so won’t help to solve the housing crisis”

By that logic, we should just stop building homes altogether. Homes are expensive everywhere - that’s what the housing crisis is.

The price of new homes in the green belt is related to those nearby - which are high because the green belt has limited building. Rates of development in areas with green belt are around a third lower than they would otherwise be, while eight of the ten most unaffordable towns and cities in England are constrained by the green belt. That isn’t a coincidence.

If we’re going to tackle the housing crisis - and build the 300,000 homes a year that the country needs - more housing needs to be delivered everywhere.

“The green belt provides space for recreation”

Public access was one of the original aims of the green belt when it was first talked about in the late 1800s. By the time the first green belt was proposed in the 1930s, its aim was to restrict the spread of London - nothing more.

Today, very little of the green belt is publicly accessible - most of it is in private ownership. For example, only 13% of the Metropolitan green belt around London is accessible to the general public.

“We can save the green belt from development if only we built on all the derelict brownfield land”

The Campaign to Protect Rural England - to all intents and purposes the green belt’s Praetorian Guard - estimate that there is enough brownfield land to deliver just over 1.1 million homes. That’s a big number, no doubt, but compared to the 300,000 homes a year we need to deliver, it won’t last very long.

Local plans are supposed to plan for development needs over a period of at least fifteen years. For boroughs with green belt, it is usually inevitable that they need to consider which parts of it can be sensibly developed in addition to using brownfield sites.

“Building on the green belt is not sustainable”

It can actually be more sustainable. Sustainable development means meeting the needs of current generations without prejudicing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. We can’t have sustainable development unless we’re building enough homes for everyone - and the green belt is part of the reason we can’t.

The green belt has other unsustainable impacts too. For example, recent research has shown that the restrictions it places on house building increases commuting distances as it becomes more difficult for people to find a suitable home close to their place of work. As the supply of housing becomes less flexible and the costs of moving increase, the labour force becomes less mobile - slowing economic growth.

“Without the green belt, the countryside will be lost forever”

The vast majority of the countryside isn’t green belt at all, and yet it’s never been built on. Only around 8% of the country has been developed. There’s no reason to expect the countryside would disappear if it wasn’t designated as green belt.

Much of the green belt is already covered by other protections too. A third of Local Nature Reserves and nearly a fifth of ancient woodland is within the green belt - those protections by themselves would prevent development, even without a green belt designation.

Green belt - the reality

Green belt is a planning policy primarily intended to manage the growth of towns and cities. When it was introduced in the 1950s it was the companion to the development of New Towns. Growth would be restricted in some areas, but encouraged in others.

At the time, the population was under 40 million - today it is approaching 60 million. Whilst the green belt remains, there is no companion policy to make sure that the development we need can actually take place.

When decisions are being made about how more homes can be delivered, we need to remember that - without being blinded by the many misconceptions.

Paul Smith, MD, Strategic Land Group