Finding the right balance between delivering enough new homes and protecting the Green Belt is a challenge that councils across the country are encountering as they prepare new Local Plans. On the one hand there is pressure from government to ensure that enough new homes are built to help address the housing crisis. On the other hand there are often vocal local residents campaigning to protect the Green Belt at all costs.
With tensions running high, is now the time to discuss what the Green Belt should really be achieving?
Where did the Green Belt come from?
To decide how to deal with the Green Belt in the future, it is important to understand where it has come from and what it was intended to be for.
The idea of a Green Belt was first proposed in England in 1938 with the aim of restricting the spread of London. At the time the absence of a recognisable planning system to manage development meant there was little to prevent towns and cities sprawling outwards into the countryside. Perhaps the best example of this is London’s ‘Metroland’ which was constructed along the route of what is now the Metropolitan Line by a railway company in the 1920s and 1930s. The Green Belt was a way to control that growth.
In 1947 the planning system as we now recognise it was created by the Town and Country Planning Act. As well as introducing the plan-led planning system, it also enabled councils outside London to establish their own Green Belts. With the planning system’s usual efficiency, it took until 1955 for the precise criteria for Green Belt to be set out.
At the same time, the government also advanced a programme of New Towns. This was an attempt to deliver the new homes the country needed in brand new settlements rather than by simply allowing existing towns and cities to grow. It resulted in the development of places like Milton Keynes, Telford and Runcorn.
The constraint on growth created by the Green Belt was deliberately balanced by the accelerated growth elsewhere through the construction of New Towns. One wouldn’t have worked without the other.
The Green Belt today
Today, there are 14 Green Belts which cover 12.4% of the countryside. This is a larger area than the roughly 10% of the country that is developed. The modern role of the Green Belt is defined in the National Planning Policy Framework. That sets our five functions which the Green Belt is supposed to serve. These are:
- 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.
It is important to see what the Green Belt isn’t. For example, Green Belt isn’t the same as the countryside. Nor is it intended to be some sort of quality mark identifying the most attractive areas of countryside. It is largely about managing the growth of urban areas.
The impact of the modern Green Belt
Since the Green Belt was first established, the population of England has increased dramatically. The 1951 census revealed England’s population to be just over 38 million. By 2011, it had grown to more than 53 million – an increase of almost 40%.
Despite the stories you may read in the press, the Green Belt has actually increased in size since 1997.
The Green Belt is still performing its role of preventing the growth of cities. It is doing that so well, it is now a key contributor to the housing crisis.
Research has shown that 35% of the price of homes in England is attributable to the constraints on development imposed by the planning system. Eight of the ten most unaffordable cities in England are constrained by Green Belt.
The sustainability balance
As originally envisaged, the Green Belt was about ensuring sustainability. It stopped cities becoming too big in an era when life was lived on a walking scale and only very few owned a car. At the same time, the New Towns programme ensured that enough new homes could be built to meet housing need.
That is no longer true. While the Green Belt is still playing its role in protecting the countryside, its negative impacts are growing too.
Avoiding these impacts isn’t just about building more homes on brownfield sites. Again and again council’s across the country are coming to the conclusion that they can’t fit in all the homes they need unless they release Green Belt for development. So sacred has the Green Belt become, though, that all too often those councils choose any option other than releasing parts of it for development.
The result is less sustainable patterns of development.
Development is “leapfrogging” the Green Belt. Rather than developing highly accessible sites on the edge of cities that happen to be designated as Green Belt, disproportionate numbers of homes are being built in smaller towns on fields that look identical but have a different planning designation.
As one example, in Cambridge new homes are being planned beyond the Green Belt with a new bus link to deliver people into the centre of the city. This increases vehicle miles to protect fields that were given a particular label solely to suit the preferred development pattern in 1950.
There is no New Towns programme, or anything comparable, to compensate for the constraint of the Green Belt.
House prices are being pushed ever upwards. Generations are being priced out of the housing market.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Green Belt policy is some 70 years old. The world has changed a lot in that time.
Sustainable development means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Now is the time to reconsider exactly where the most sustainable balance lies between protection and growth. The tensions around Green Belt show that the current balance isn’t working.
Despite the constraints, some limited development is allowed in the Green Belt.