Green belt accused of causing more building in rural areas

photo of a sheep in the middle of a field

Green belt policy was written into law after the introduction of the New Towns Acts of 1946 and 1981, which helped reduce the population of urban centres in the South East of England. Local authorities could designate green belt land without adversely affecting population growth in these areas by building new homes, infrastructure and facilities in purpose built, large scale sustainable developments.

When it was introduced, the protection of land by assigning it as green belt was far from a new idea.

In 1580, a ‘cordon sanitaire’ was introduced around London by Queen Elizabeth I, who established a three mile wide protected area around the capital to prevent the building of houses where no building had been in existence in living memory. The rules were widely ignored.

The idea was raised again in 1657 by the Commonwealth Parliament and again by the Victorians, who were keen to set a limit on urban sprawl to establish a boundary of protected green space.

However, it was not until the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 that provisions were finally put in place to compensate local authorities around England for incorporating green belt land in their development proposals. Green belts would prevent cities and towns from merging, thus preserving the ‘special characteristic of historic towns’.

There are now nearly 500,000 hectares (over one million acres) of Metropolitan Green Belt – to give it is proper name-  around London, in some places stretching out 35 miles. It crosses the borders of several councils and covers an area estimated to be able to accommodate up to 50 million new homes.

England as a whole has an estimated 1,652,310 hectares of green belt land around many of England’s major conurbations, from Bournemouth in the south, through the Midlands and on to Newcastle upon Tyne in the north.

Green belt certainly divides opinion, with its critics citing it as one of the reasons for housing shortages and house price inflation. Far from saving the countryside and open spaces, some say, green belt land defeats its stated objective and doesn’t stop urban growth – it just forces more growth in rural areas. These areas lack infrastructure and leave people needing to travel further for work and access to other facilities.

Its supporters believe that green belt is the ‘ultimate guarantee’ that preserves our green and pleasant land for future generations.

Green belt is currently under threat, with government changes to local plans and land banking rules up until 2030 meaning some local authorities, under ‘exceptional circumstances’, will have to consider allowing the building of homes on green belt land to meet house building objectives.

The London Green Belt Council says that currently there are plans to build over 233,000 new homes on green belt land, but campaigners say there up to 250,000 homes could be built on brownfield sites that exist within the green belt.

Jonathan Seager, from London First, calls on politicians to have a more nuanced approach to the green belt. He said: “We want to keep the green belt. It is a concept that keeps us merging into other cities … but not all of the land within the green belt is pleasant, green and accessible. Politicians need to think carefully about the type of land which is in the green belt; look at sites on the green belt which are brownfield sites, or of low quality, close to existing stations, which could be potentially be developed with the local community.”

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, is not a fan of building on green belt and the London Plan says that new homes should be built on brownfield land. However, if councils don’t meet their housing targets within the local plan, developers can apply for planning permission anywhere in the borough, including green belt land.

The London Green Belt Council accused the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) of putting councils under pressure to release green belt land for development.

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “Decisions to release green belt land are made by local councils, not central government. Protecting the green belt is a priority and our national planning policy reinforces regenerating brownfield sites and prioritising urban areas. Our reforms to the planning system will protect our cherished countryside and green spaces as well as deliver high-quality and sustainable homes.”