The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. But could rethinking Green Belt policy be the key to solving our housing crisis?
Since its inception in 1955, the Green Belt has been instrumental in preventing urban sprawl and maintaining open land for agriculture, forestry, and leisure - acting as a natural buffer between towns and the countryside.
However, the pressing demand for housing has sparked a debate: Can the strategic development of Green Belt contribute to a solution?
Right now, England's Green Belt is a sprawling area of about 1.6 million hectares — that's roughly 16.4 billion square meters — making up 12.6% of the country's land.
The Green Belt is clustered around 15 urban cores, the largest being London (5,062km2), Merseyside and Greater Manchester (2,489km2), and South and West Yorkshire (including Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford, 2,270km2).
The government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) explains that the Green Belt serves five purposes:
In the past, the government’s Planning Policy Guidance for the use of land in Green Belts (PPG2) was well defined:
It's important to remember that Green Belt functions primarily as a spatial planning tool helping manage urban growth, rather than acting as a guardian of the landscape's natural beauty. So, while it's easy to think that all the open spaces and fields outside our towns are part of the Green Belt, that's not always true.
Building within the Green Belt isn't simple. Unlike other areas where sustainable development is often encouraged, here developers need to make a strong case for why their building plans should be approved. This strict approach is what keeps the Green Belt so tightly regulated.
Building big new housing projects on Green Belt land is extremely rare. But that doesn't mean all development is restricted. There are a few things the government allows through permitted development rights. Here's what's allowed:
Reclassifying just 1% of Green Belt land could unlock the potential for 738,000 new homes. This potential sits at the heart of the Green Belt development debate, juxtaposing the urgency of the housing crisis against the idea of conservation.
However, proposed changes to the NPPF (published in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill consultation outcome in September 2023) make it even more difficult to get plans approved for development on the Green Belt.
As we look to the future of Green Belt areas, it's crucial to engage in a dialogue that weighs the value of these lands against the nation's housing needs. The outcome of this will shape not only the landscape of England but also the framework for sustainable urban living for generations to come.
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