The Green Belt – should we use it to solve the housing crisis?
The concept of a ‘green belt’ was first put forward by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee back in 1935 as a way of restricting urban growth. Their proposal was to provide “a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space.”
The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 then allowed local authorities to include green belt proposals in their development plans. Today, there are 14 separate green belts in England varying in size from 486,000 hectares around the capital, to just 700 hectares around Burton on Trent.
For its supporters, the green belt is seen as preserving Britain’s cherished landscapes and rural heritage, whilst its critics see it as a hindrance to much-needed development and a contributory factor in the high cost of housing.
Interestingly, the quality or appearance of land is not a factor in its designation as green belt, and in many instances, it isn’t ‘green’ in nature. However, any suggestion that green belt land should be used for housing is unlikely to find favour with those who view any incursion into these protected areas as simply the thin end of the urban sprawl wedge.
A survey by the Campaign to protect Rural England in 2015 found that 62 per cent of urban dwellers want to see the greenbelt protected. However, even the green belt’s most ardent supporters would have to admit that some green belt land is less attractive and often inaccessible. The more beautiful stretches of green belt land are often additionally protected by the designation of ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’ or ‘ancient woodland’.
The UK’s chronic need for housing
As we all know, we face a housing crisis in the UK that needs to be tackled by the building up to a million more homes over the next five years, and we must find the land to build them on. Alan Mace of the London School of Economics has suggested that the numbers could be reached by opening up corridors alongside major transport routes, such as the London to Cambridge road on which Harlow lies. He sees new “garden cities” on these arteries as part of the answer.
Currently, alterations to green belt boundaries can only be made in exceptional circumstances. However, a paper from the Adam Smith Institute published in 2015 advocated abolishing green belt protections altogether, but leaving the more specific protections for areas of genuine environmental importance or natural beauty.
The paper calculated that if just 3.7 per cent of London green belt land was freed up, there would be space for a million homes. Overall, it would take only half a percentage point of the UK’s green belt land to fulfil its entire housing need, estimated at two million homes over the next decade.
The UK must find a way out of its housing crisis, and reforming the green belt should be one of the options considered in finding a workable solution.
How we can help
If you would like any advice in relation to any aspect of Planning Law, please email our Head of Town & Country Planning, Salvatore Amico.