Green Belt – is it time for a change?

During this unprecedented time when the nation has been asked to stay at home, the issues of poor-quality housing, overcrowding, homelessness and affordability are again highlighted. This crisis has also emphasised the enormous value of our open spaces.

Now, more than ever a solution to our housing crisis needs to be found – how do we provide the number of homes needed in places where people want and need to live, whilst delivering open space and protecting our environment and countryside?

The first thing to acknowledge is that there is no single answer, but could redefining the purpose of the Green Belt play a significant role in the solution?

The 1947 Planning Act formally introduced the planning system as we know it and the Green Belt classification. Its primary function was to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. It now accounts for 12.5% of the country’s land mass, an area greater than that currently developed. It is often celebrated as the greatest success of our planning system but has the policy reached its sell by date?

The Green Belt has become an institution, embedded in people’s psyche as the embodiment of British countryside. It is now a battle ground and one which is widely thought to be under constant threat of destruction. However the reality is something quite different. The Green Belt is not a designation which recognises landscape quality or environmental significance, nor provides public access as of right; in fact two thirds of Green Belt is within agricultural use and is largely inaccessible.

Whilst the policy encourages opportunities for public access and environmental improvements, there are no powers to secure this. There is no doubt that this policy has been overwhelmingly successful but what modern function does it still serve and should this be prioritised beyond meeting housing need and locating those houses in the most suitable and sustainable locations?

The continued relevance of the Green Belt has been the matter of various studies over the last 30 years. The Adam Smith Institute called for the designation to be abolished completely. It claimed that it caused economic, social and environmental harm by creating a “green noose” around our urban centres. The report claimed that just releasing Green Belt land located within 800m of a railway station could deliver one million homes within London alone.

On the flip side there are those who campaign fervently for the maintenance of the status quo. CPRE are one of many organisations that claim these areas provide vital environmental and social benefits which are incompatible with housing development. They criticise the developments that have been allowed for not providing the promised level of affordable housing or the economic benefits. Is there no middle ground?

One which alters the function of the Green Belt as an asset for the communities it serves, providing access to green infrastructure and protecting and enhancing biodiversity, while at the same time recognising the existing economic requirement for urban growth?

Could Green Belt policy be more sophisticated?

A policy which provides effective protection of land which has genuine environmental or recreational purpose whilst releasing suitable land for much needed homes? There are already numerous land classifications which Councils could use to provide meaningful protection such as SSSI’s, Areas Of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks and Metropolitan Open Land.  These could be extended or new classifications created to protect those areas that local people feel were significant to their community.

At the same time Councils would need to remove the disproportionate weight given to the protection of Green Belt land and judge land on its suitability in terms of best meeting social, economic and environmental aims.

House builders also have their part to play by delivering high quality developments which provide the range of homes needed in an attractive and sustainable environment. Developments which provide quality open space and infrastructure that are seen to provide tangible benefits to both existing and future communities.

These notions are not new, however if a revised purpose for our Green Belt is to be recognised it would require a significant change in policy from Central Government. What is forgotten in this debate is that the Green Belt has doubled in size since 1979, yet any reform to Green Belt policy has become the proverbial “hot potato”.

Despite the commitment by all political parties to resolve the housing crisis, a fundamental reform to the Green Belt will require political courage and this may be the real housing challenge!

Could your land have development potential?   Find out more about land promotion: www.catesbyestates.co.uk

Victoria Groves – Senior Planning Manager

01256 637914 / victoriag@catesbyestates.co.uk