What’s next for the Green Belt?

On Monday Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) released research showing that housing development proposed for the Green Belt has increased by another 50,000 to more than a quarter of a million houses. CPRE’s analysis comes in the context of Government’s proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which will relax some restrictions on house building in the Green Belt.

National Trust-commissioned research in 2013 indicated that a majority of local authorities were planning to allocate Green Belt land for housing.  Recent Department for Communities and Local Government statistics from March 2015 showed that 11 local planning authorities reduced their Green Belt in the previous year (not more than four a year had changed their Green Belts in previous years) with Christchurch reducing theirs by 6% and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne by 9%.  Since then Coventry have revealed plans for major changes in their Green Belt which could see it reduced in net-terms by around 20%.

It is not just allocations in local plans that are a cause of concern.  Speculative applications by developers are also being approved, even where the local council opposes them.  A few weeks ago Communities Secretary Greg Clark approved proposals for up to 1,500 new homes in the Green Belt that is meant to stop Cheltenham and Gloucester merging into one conurbation, and in March, 150 homes were approved in the Green Belt in Cheshire, after Cheshire East Council lost a legal challenge in the Court of Appeal.

© Campaign to Protect Rural England, April 2016

© Campaign to Protect Rural England, April 2016

Why does this concern the National Trust? 

As an organisation dedicated to the preservation and conversation of special places for ever, for everyone, we believe the Green Belt has an important role to play in keeping places distinct and special.  Indeed, one of our founders, Octavia Hill, is thought by many to have coined the term ‘Green Belt’ when she was campaigning to save green space in London for city dwellers to enjoy in 1875. For 60 years it has successfully prevented the urban sprawl that other countries have seen, retaining open land between our towns and villages to maintain the uniqueness and individual identities of places.  In a recent survey 64% of people agreed that the Green Belt should be protected, with only 17% disagreeing.  Which is why we think it’s important to maintain the protections the Green Belt offers.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t understand that the nation needs more housing.  We support appropriate development of the right design in the right place.  We have a strong presumption that the Green Belt isn’t the right place, both for the original reason it was created, to prevent sprawl, and for the important other benefits it provides now and has the potential to provide into the future.

As our population grows, and housing needs increase, we need more rather than less high quality green spaces.  The benefits to people of having easy access to green spaces in their daily lives has been well documented.  The very roots of the National Trust are in the impassioned belief of our founders in the need for accessible open spaces for everyone, particularly people working in towns and cities, to enjoy.

Petts Wood and Hawkwood Estate, in the Metropolitan Green Belt © National Trust Images /Emily Pyle

Petts Wood and Hawkwood Estate, in the Metropolitan Green Belt © National Trust Images /Emily Pyle

The challenge

With land in finite supply the challenge of providing necessary housing and green spaces is considerable.  Both need to be within or close to existing towns and cities which have the services to support housing, and residents and workers who want access to green spaces for recreation and relaxation.

Some argue that our Green Belt is a good place to build because it’s of poor environmental quality, under intensive industrialised agriculture and offers little opportunity for public access and enjoyment.  Turn that on its head, and it’s possible to envisage how a change in agricultural practice combined with well-designed tree planting can greatly enhance both the wildlife and landscape value of Green Belt, and how people could benefit from increased access to quality green space on our doorsteps.  Green Belt once built on is gone for ever.

There are other options.  We support the Government’s clear emphasis on prioritising previously developed (brownfield) land for housing development.  CPRE analysis has revealed that brownfield has the potential to deliver nearly a million of the homes this country needs.

Moreover, there are plenty of existing sites with planning consent for housing that aren’t being developed.  It’s wrong to blame the planning system alone for constraining the numbers of houses being built – last year 253,000 homes were granted planning permission, but delivery by developers is falling well short of that.  Government’s focus should be on working with developers to deliver their end of the bargain, and build houses they have been granted planning permission to build.

View north over the Palladian Bridge at Prior Park Landscape Garden, Bath, Somerset. ©National Trust Images/Charlie Waite.

View north over the Palladian Bridge at Prior Park Landscape Garden, Bath, Somerset. ©National Trust Images/Charlie Waite.

Green Belt boundaries have never been fixed in stone.  There has always been scope for small adjustments to ensure sustainable growth in our cities and towns, but these should be carried out through a locally-led strategic planning process with community input.  Any resulting development should be of exemplary design.  We welcome community initiatives like the Prince’s Foundation’s Beauty in my Backyard toolkit and ResPublica’s “Community Right to Beauty” proposals to encourage good design and empower people to shape development in their places.

It’s clear that the future of the Green Belt will continue to spark debate.  On Monday evening our Land, Landscapes and Nature Director, Peter Nixon, was an event panellist as part of the Building Centre’s Beyond the Green Belt exhibition.  This blog is based on his speech.  Peter ended by sharing our experience that the demand is immense, and growing, for people in towns and cities to enjoy green spaces on their doorstep.  Octavia Hill’s words are as real today as they were 100 years ago in her observation that “the need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and … the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs, common to all”.  Today the National Trust has over 200 million visits a year to our outdoors properties, ten times the number to our houses.   And nowhere more so than next to cities.  People are voting with their feet.


2 thoughts on “What’s next for the Green Belt?

  1. Much of this analysis is right, but it misses a few points. There is no mention of the fact that the national area of Green Belt land has, in fact, increased substantially over the last 20 years – it has not been all one-way traffic as suggested. Whilst Green Belts may have prevented the worst examples of urban sprawl visible in some other countries, they have certainly NOT delivered the best examples of city and town development which can be found on our doorstep in mainland Europe. The Green Belt certainly needs much better controls – its purpose was not ONLY to prevent urban sprawl (it has 5 specific objectives listed in the NPPF), but its purposes do not include providing a diverse ecology, or ensuring that the land is genuinely accessible, e.g. by provision or maintenance of footpaths and bridleways. Contrary to what many believe, Green Belt status does not preclude development of roads, railways, pipelines, car parks, stations, or solar farms, etc., etc. – even industrial development is permissible in ‘exceptional cases’. It is ironic that solar panels mounted 2m above ground with pigs and sheep living beneath is fine, but solar panels mounted 5m above ground with humans living beneath is anathema! The number of cities and towns with Green Belts is quite limited; ‘urban sprawl’ is unacceptable in places where a Green Belt exists, but rural housing estates 10 miles up the road in the next town are not regarded as ‘sprawl’ at all, but desirable and much-needed homes for increasingly-desperate people. The Green Belt is a very blunt instrument which, in the current circumstances of a genuine housing crisis and intense pressure for development, fails to deliver the kind of ‘green’ environmental assets we need. What is required is proper, detailed, strategic land use and transportation planning across ‘functional economic areas’; the recent report to DCLG of the Local Plans Expert Group strongly advocates such an approach. But this planning should specify and protect the particular characteristics of areas of land according to the specific purposes which they are expected to fulfil and which justify its protection. Clearly, just fighting rearguard action against erosion of Green Belts is not a sufficient approach for 21st century Britain, and is patently futile, to boot – the evidence cited demonstrates that.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Peter, and we’re glad that you support some of our analysis. You are of course correct that the amount of Green Belt land has increased in some areas over last 20 years, and this is something we could, and perhaps should, have mentioned.

      As our blog states, we believe that the Green Belt designation has an enduring value, but we agree that more should be done to improve the quality of Green Belt land, its biodiversity and access to it.

      Perhaps our key point in response to your comment is that we share your view that there is a pressing need for consistent, long term, strategic planning, which is the best means we have to resolve the housing crisis while protecting valued countryside and green infrastructure.

      Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to comment.

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