Written by Francesca McClimont
The British countryside is famous for its scenic rolling hills and green pastures. Travelling out or into a city, the distinction between urban and rural is noticeably stark. This is because of a government policy known as the Green Belt. This legislation aims to control urban growth and sprawl by protecting the countryside that surrounds our cities in Britain. It provides open, green spaces to 30 million city residents across the country as well as protecting natural habitats and reducing the impacts of climate change.
The policy has proved popular with the public: in 2015, the 60th anniversary of the Green Belt’s creation, an Ipsos Mori poll found that 64% of respondents were against building on Green Belt land. Since 2015 and up to 2020, however, government statistics show that Green Belt land has decreased by 15,700 hectares.
This decrease comes as the nation faces a housing shortage. Over recent years, the Green Belt has been criticised and placed under increased pressure as it reduces the amount of developable land available, thereby pushing the price of houses up and making it harder, particularly for younger generations, to enter the housing market.
The Institute of Economic Affairs published a paper in 2019 stating that “all Green Belt boundaries should be reviewed, starting with those areas that do not have an adequate land supply for the next ten years to meet known population requirements.” They cite the urgent need for extra housing in England’s largest cities of Birmingham, Manchester and London. The largest proportion of all Green Belt land falls in the London region, with 22.1% of it surrounding the capital.
The paper adds that “there is enough Green Belt land within the confines of Greater London – 32,500 hectares – to build 1.6 million houses at average densities. If only a tenth of this land were used for new housing that would represent 160,000 new homes – a significant response to the urgent housing crisis in the capital.”
The environmental charity Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has strongly condemned building developments on Green Belt lands, calling them “land-hungry” and arguing that between 2015-2020 only 10% of housing on Green Belt land was considered affordable social housing by the UK government. They also add that 74% of Green Belt development is on greenfield lands (rural land that has not previously been built on). This land is likely to never revert back to its former use and results in loss of wildlife, agricultural jobs and production. It also dilutes the distinction between city and countryside that a robust Green Belt policy provides.
Brownfield land that has been previously built is the other option available to developers. The CPRE is calling for a ‘brownfield first’ policy in the government’s current Planning Bill. This will ensure that redevelopment of existing sites should be prioritised over new developments of Green Belt land. The government will need to incentivise this policy through a levy or taxation if it is to be successful.