As unpopular an idea as it may be I’m not sure politicians can avoid the need to talk about reviewing the green belt for much longer. With all the discussion about the UK housing crisis: rising prices, reducing affordability, scarcity of land and under supply of homes, it seems that those with an interest in housing are almost all agreed that increasing supply is one of the key ways of reducing our housing problem. How we do that is however a matter for debate – some would say it can be done by bringing empty homes back into use, densification and development on brownfield land, without the need to consider greenfield or green belt land. Others would argue that greenfield and green belt is a necessary part of the equation. But in typical UK style we are not taking a particularly long term, strategic or comprehensive approach to this, we are chipping away at the issue, encouraging local councils to consider the issues locally without really providing any clear national guidance. The result is confusion, uncertainty and unplanned, ad hoc developments that don’t really satisfy anyone.
So, what’s all the fuss about anyway, what is the green belt and why do we hang on to this historic policy so desparately? Green belt policy dates back to the 1930s and 1940s and its original purpose still holds true today, that is, to prevent urban sprawl and act as a buffer between towns. Green belt land accounts for about 13% of land area in England and is seen by many as valuable and by others as a major obstacle. The main purpose of green belt policy is spelt out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as follows:
- 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
- to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land
It would be true to say that green belt policy has been one of our most effective planning policies, it has undoubtedly helped planners and communities to protect open spaces around cities and towns and has stopped the merger of built up areas. There are clear advantages to the policy that are as relevant now as they were when it was first established. Therefore I wouldn’t argue for a removal of the policy, as it is both valuable and effective. But I would argue for a full national review of the policy, assessing the quality, impact and relevance of current designations. Since the policy was first introduced many things have changed about the way we live our lives, about the way we commute and about the way our urban areas work. That’s why the policy needs to be reviewed, to take on board commuting patterns, to protect valuable open spaces within urban areas, to maintain varied density levels in urban areas and to contribute to the overall sustainability of our cities and towns. At the moment, green belt policy can be seen to have a negative effect on many of these aspects and is a hindrance to the ability of local councils to provide for new affordable homes in places that people want to live.
The key to this discussion is generating the right balance between protection and review, and to generating a rational debate about the issues without the kind of scaremongering promoted by some aspects of our media and some politicians and campaign groups. Since when was it more important to protect a piece of land than it was to house vulnerable people or provide choice in our housing market for those that need somewhere to live – because that’s what it boils down to in the end – real political choices and at the moment those protecting the land are winning!
There are many in the housing arena who are getting wise to this idea and various campaigns have started up over the last few years, such as Yes to Homes, SHOUT, and Priced Out but the Nimby and environmental lobby, CPRE, National Trust and others still seem to have the ear of our national politicians to the point where they are willing to sacrifice not providing enough homes in order to protect certain areas of land. Now I’m not suggesting a free for all, where all land is up for development, far from it. But it is definitely time for entrenched positions to be challenged and for a grown up debate about green belt land. With a proper review we could achieve all our objectives, by opening up relevant, appropriate and accessible land for development whilst maintaining and enhancing areas of green belt land for the future. Without a proper review, we will see constant battles over small pieces of land, continuing undersupply of housing, or poorly located housing, and further erosion of valuable open spaces within our urban areas.Town cramming is a very real issue, with huge implications, just ask town planners in the Netherlands who faced this years ago around Amsterdam and the Randstad.
The solution to the housing crisis is by no means simple, and reviewing the green belt to release land is not the only answer, but I can’t help but feel it needs to be part of the solution?