Last edited 02 Dec 2020

The future of the green belt

Will Savage (@wosavage) from Snapdragon Consulting assesses what the election might mean for the Green Belt.

We all know that Britain is in the grip of a housing crisis, and if history is anything to go by we all know that the Government will miss its housing targets for the coming Parliament.

The reasons for this are many and complex, but perhaps the most contentious is the nation’s seemingly insatiable desire for the Green Belt and zero-tolerance for development upon it.

Around 516,000 hectares of land, enough to build 20-50 million houses, surrounds London alone, whilst vast swathes of mostly un-developed land surrounds Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol, along with nine other urban areas in England and ten in Scotland. The Green Belt currently occupies around 13% of the total land area in England, compared to the 9% of land that is built on. It has grown into a behemoth since its inception and now dwarfs the environment it was designed to restrain.

The notion of a ‘Green Belt’ was first mooted in 1580, when Queen Elizabeth I established a three-mile wide cordon sanitaire around London, prohibiting housing development where there had not been a building in living memory. By all accounts this proclamation was widely ignored. It was not until the late nineteenth-century that the idea received any more thought.

In January 1914, Aston Webb, architect of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the facade of Buckingham Palace, told his peers at the London Society that he foresaw, in the year 2014, “a beautiful sylvan line practically around all London.” He named it the ‘Green Belt’. One wonders if the plan would have been as well-received if it had kept its original working-title, the ‘green girdle.’

The Green Belt was subsequently sanctioned in Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan (1944) and established in the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947, designed to hold in check urban sprawl and protect the countryside from increasing urbanisation. Ever since, it has been hailed as a victory of post-war planning and now extends more than 30 miles wide in places.

However, think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute have called for the total abolition of the Green Belt in an effort to supply the homes we need – or at the very least a review of what should constitute Green Belt – and their calls are supported by more moderate organisations such as Centre for Cities and the London Society.

The Institute argues that the release of a strip of Green Belt land merely half a mile wide around London would provide for 800,000 new homes, a significant dent in the nation’s housing need, where it is most needed. With statistics like that, politicians at both local and national level should be giving serious thought to the very notion of a Green Belt.

In addition, the Institute has argued that in fact there are substantial welfare costs to the Green Belt. For example, it restricts urban development, forcing our cities to become ever-more densely populated – making accommodation smaller and more expensive, making business space unaffordable and contributing to the volatile nature of house prices. In addition, by encouraging urban densification, the Institute has argued that Green Belts take green space away from where it is valued most. Each hectare of urban park is estimated to be worth £54,000 a year, compared to £889 per hectare of Green Belt.

However, communities living in areas of Green Belt, or close to it, have become wedded to the idea and principle, holding it to be sacrosanct. This is in spite of the claims of the Adam Smith Institute that “Green Belts are not the bucolic idylls some imagine them to be.” Therein lays the crux of the problem. People’s perception of the Green Belt is vastly different from the reality. People imagine the Green Belt to be an oasis of beautiful countryside, woodland and natural habitat. The reality is that the majority of Green Belt is lent to intensive farming, disused gravel pits and haggard farms. In fact, a recent survey by London First found that 7% of the Metropolitan Green Belt is made up of golf courses.

The London Society has argued that we “need to move away from the idea that the countryside is a sacrosanct patchwork of medieval hedgerows” towards the recognition of “housing as a need to be met in locations with appropriate environmental capacity.” The Adam Smith Institute has, for example, suggested that at a minimum all Green Belt land within a ten minute walk from a rail station should be released for development.

This challenges politicians at local and national level and the Conservative Party in particular, who have championed localism in planning matters. If local communities living in the Green Belt had the final say, there would undoubtedly be no development at all, understandably so in many respects.

However, decision makers, whether local authorities or the Government, must find a balance between the desire of rural communities to remain untouched by development and the needs of our cities to grow and expand. As a starting point a sensible, measured debate needs to take place. It’s already started within the property industry, but now needs to expand to Government.

Don’t expect a quick solution, but the argument is building momentum.

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