By James Carson
“The green belt has been exalted as sacrosanct in a way in which almost no other policy area has been indulged, and any attempts to have a serious conversation about its development have been swiftly stifled with the same kind of force as would usually be reserved for suggestions to entirely dismantle the NHS.”
So said Andrew Carter, the Acting Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, writing on the Conservative Home website earlier this month. It’s true that green belts have long been regarded as untouchable. But there are signs that the bulletproof shield protecting them could be breaking down.
In September, the Wolfson Economics Prize went to regeneration consultancy Urbed for its proposal to create a city of 400,000 people by doubling the size of an existing town and building on the surrounding green belt. The following month, Rowan Moore, The Observer’s architecture critic, considered the arguments for and against green belts and concluded:
“…it is no longer good enough to insist that green belts must, at all costs, never change.”
Meanwhile, defenders of green belts have been voicing their concerns. “A weakening of protection for green belts would lead to urban sprawl over precious countryside and farmland,” said the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), launching its campaign for a stronger commitment from government to review the latest threats to the green belt. And after the Wolfson prize winner was announced, architect Richard Rogers spoke out against Urbed’s proposal to take a bite out of the green belt, calling it “a ridiculous concept.”
The idea of curbing urbanisation is not new. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a three-mile wide belt around London was proposed in order to stop the spread of the plague. More recently, the garden city movement’s ideas about urban and rural areas, led to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which allowed local authorities to include green belts in their town plans.
Today, there are 14 green belts in England, 10 in Scotland, 30 in Northern Ireland and one in Wales. They exist as buffers between towns and countryside, and successive governments have ensured that they are maintained. The UK government’s latest National Planning Policy Framework sets out the green belt’s five purposes:
- to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
- to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
- to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
- to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
- to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
Historically, green belts have been regarded as one of Britain’s great planning successes. But there has been growing criticism of the costs of the green belt, typified by Rowan Moore’s observation:
“It stops cities expanding, which had previously done so for centuries. It contributes to the scarcity and cost of decent homes in large parts of the country. It encourages bizarre and wasteful patterns of commuting. It often fails in its original aim of providing accessible recreational space for city dwellers. It is enforced with a rigidity that makes little sense, except as a sign of mistrust.”
Britain’s housing crisis has amplified calls for the green belt to be breached. Government projections suggest that the UK needs six million new homes in the next 30 years. Proponents of building on green land contend that existing urban and brownfield areas alone cannot cater for the housing demand, an argument underlined by Urbed in its submission to the Wolfson competition.
Centre for Cities has claimed that building on 5.2% of green belt land within and around Britain’s least affordable cities would deliver 1.4 million new homes.
Their opponents disagree. This month, the CPRE reported that a minimum of 976,000 new homes could be built on identified brownfield sites in England, and that the supply of these sites is steadily increasing. The organisation has also suggested that housebuilders are “sitting on huge areas of land with planning permission which could provide over 280,000 new homes.”
With a general election on the horizon, the main political parties have been drawing up their battle lines. The Labour Party is showing signs of greater flexibility on the green belt issue. In October, Sir Michael Lyons published the final report of his independent review of housing for the Labour Party. One of his recommendations included allowing more homes to be built on parts of the protected green belt if the land has little “environmental or amenity value”. In response, the Conservative Party has reiterated its commitment to protecting the green belt.
Perhaps most interestingly, it’s at the local level that changing policies on green belts can be most clearly seen. Councils in England are responding to the housing crisis by using localism powers granted to them by the coalition government to de-designate or swap greenbelt land in the context of making a local plan. Figures published in August by Glenigan planning and construction consultants revealed that 5,600 new homes were approved to be built on green belt land last year, a 148% increase on the 2,260 green belt homes in 2009/10.
The debate now seems to be moving towards a recognition that some infringement of green belt land is inevitable, which is perhaps why a recent commentary on the subject by an academic from the London School of Economics was not titled, “Why should we build on the green belt?” Instead, it was headlined: “Where should we build on the green belt?”.
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