Green belts are often described as the best-known, but most mis-understood, UK planning policy, says LPDF policy director John Acres.
In a year when we celebrate the 70thanniversary of the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act 1949– which heralded both National Parks and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty – one might be excused for thinking that green belts are part of that same objective – to promote, preserve and protect Britain’s landscape.
They are not.
Green belts have always been viewed as a physical planning policy designed to contain the unrestrained growth of cities. A ‘green belt’ was first envisaged in the Metropolitan Plan for London in 1935, intended to prevent the inter-war spread of the conurbation.
The 1940 Barlow report concluded that the problems of urban congestion and industrial decline were best served by planned decentralisation. The 1944 Abercrombie Plan for Greater London proposed a green belt surrounded by satellite new towns to relieve the pressures of congestion and trigger planned growth of employment and housing – enshrined within the 1946 New Towns Act.
This carrot and stick approach to post-war planning was established within the Town & Country Planning Act 1947. In 1955 Duncan Sandys, Minister of Housing, introduced Circular 42/55, which extended the reach of green belts throughout the country, inviting local authorities, where appropriate, to define green belts into their plans, to protect land around towns and cities.
The Government later bolstered this strategy through the introduction of an Expanded Towns programme – with small towns accepting planned overspill from the major towns and cities.
Fast-forward to the present day and 14 green belts now cover 1.5 million hectares (or 13% of England) - a figure which has increased over time. The key purposes of green belts have remained largely consistent throughout, albeit the 5threason was added subsequently:
- To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas.
- To prevent neighbouring towns from 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.
Green belts are therefore a physicalsolution to a planning problem. Openness and permanence are the key criteria rather than landscape quality or beauty.
In fact, green belt land is often unattractive, untidy and uninspiring.
The rigid control over development leaves little scope for flexibility and no real scope or incentive for improving its appearance.
Very special circumstances are required to override the strict controls over development. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, consent for proposals within the green belt is rarely granted, except in the national interest.
Even planned growth through Local Plan reviews requires ‘exceptional circumstances’ to justify change. Recent Government figures show that only 13 authorities made planned green belt incursions during 2018/19. With the exception of East Hertfordshire, the lion’s share was in northern cities such as Barnsley, Kirklees (Huddersfield) and Rotherham.
Pressures for growth in London have now reached the point where last week (October 22nd) the London Plan inspectors reached the ‘inescapable conclusion’ in their Examination report that the Mayor Sadiq Khan should commit to a review of the city’s green belt to meet future development needs and urged him to ‘water down’ his tough stance against green belt development.
Other conurbations, such as Manchester, have also struggled to address this issue, with Andy Burnham set firmly against green belt releases in preference to brownfield sites, whilst the West Midlands Combined Authority lacks strategic powers to take any co-ordinated action at all.
So, set against a background where planning policies tend to focus housing development towards urban areas, how can towns and cities accommodate a growing population with tight green belt restraint?
The choices are either for cities to grow inwards and upwards by regeneration and increasing densities, to grow outwards by selectively breach green belt boundaries, or to build beyond the outer edge of the green belt in planned or expanded communities – or possibly all three.
But this then raises three further questions; against the challenge of climate change, should green belt policy – unchanged for a generation - constrain towns and cities (which are more efficient in economic and transport terms) whilst dispersing growth to less sustainable locations further afield where commuters have much further to travel?
Should swathes of green belt be protected for those fortunate enough to enjoy a rural lifestyle relatively close to the city?
Indeed, is it logical that growth of towns and cities should be constrained when this distorts the whole house price mechanism and industrial location patterns?
Finally, could selected locations on transport corridors within the green belt be chosen for development to achieve a better compromise?
Green belts were designated by politicians a generation ago to address the uncontrolled growth of towns and cities and then defined in detail by planners who drew the boundaries. But at that time they did not consider the wider issues of sustainable development, the critical tensions between economic growth and environmental restraint and, most importantly, the implications for climate change.
Politicians at all levels, guided by policy advice, now staunchly defend those green belt boundaries. Yet the public, and occasionally politicians, often confuse the terms of ‘green belt’ and ‘greenfield,’ creating an inbuilt and populist resistance to growth and change
Without proper regional and strategic planning, which was abruptly abandoned in 2010, it is difficult to weigh up all these issues in the round. What we now need, as we enter the General Election campaign, is a return to strategic planning and a proper debate about the need for housing and employment, the options for growth and the future roles and functions of green belt in the 21st century.