The green belt is back in the news. Keir Starmer says he would allow more homes to be built on it; Rishi Sunak says he will defend it. It looks like a straight fight, but in fact there are plenty of Labour people who want to defend the green belt and plenty of Conservatives who agree with Starmer. Here are some points to inform the debate, starting with some facts.
1. The extent and purpose of the green belt
There is a lot of green belt. It covers around 12.6 per cent of England’s land area, more than the extent of developed land in the country. Green belts are clustered around 15 urban cores, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Stoke and Bristol.
Green belt land does not have to be beautiful or rich in nature. Indeed, it does not even have to be undeveloped: seven per cent of the green belt is already developed, including car parks, sewage works and other unbeautiful things. Its five purposes, set out in paragraph 138 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), are to check urban sprawl; prevent towns merging into each other; safeguard the countryside from encroachment; preserve the setting of historic towns (such as Oxford, York, Bath and Chester); and – often forgotten – aid urban regeneration by focusing development on urban land.
Green belt that is unattractive, inaccessible or ecologically barren can still serve these purposes, though it will certainly be easier to defend if its value is more evident.
2. Building on the green belt
The NPPF (paragraphs 140-141) sets out how green belt boundaries can be altered “where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified, through the preparation or updating of plans”. The “exceptional circumstances” test is hard to meet, as it should be: green belt is meant to be permanent and it would not be doing its job if it could be redrawn easily every few years. But taking land out of the green belt is far from unusual. In 2020-1, 11 local authorities altered their green belt boundaries.
When Keir Starmer says he wants to make it easier for local authorities to take land out of the green belt, it is not clear what he means. The NPPF give local authorities that power and many take it.
In “very special circumstances”, the land can be built on without redrawing boundaries (NPPF paragraphs 147-151). In recent years green belt land has been developed at a faster rate than non-green belt land. In a sense, this is not surprising: the land around towns and cities is particularly in demand for development, which is why it is protected in the first place. But, for countryside campaigners, the green belt does not seem to be a particular robust protection.
3. Lovely green belt
Much of the green belt is beautiful, nature rich or of high amenity value. It includes Sites of Special Scientific Interest and land within Areas of Outstanding Beauty. England’s green belt has 30,000 km of rights of way, 222,000 hectares of broadleaf and mixed woodland, 19 per cent of the country’s ancient woodland, 33 per cent of its local nature reserves (made possible because the green belt depresses land values) and 44 per cent of the total land area of country parks in England.
4. Unlovely green belt
Clearly, much of the green belt serves a valuable purpose. But its critics are not thinking of such land when they advocate development, but of scrubby or ‘unattractive’ land on its outer edge. Urban fringe, whether protected or not, is always under pressure. Build on “edgelands” and you just move the edge. And because it is scarce, land in the green belt that receives planning permission is worth huge sums of money, giving landowners an incentive to run down its quality. “Its an eyesore, let’s build on it.”
5. Greening the green belt
Countryside campaigners know this, which is why they often resort to bloody-minded defence of land of no apparent amenity or biodiversity value. They also know that with strong protection, it can be transformed; as it has been, for instance, in the Thames Chase Community Forest, created on land used for landfill and gravel extraction, and the Mersey Forest, which has transformed land once dominated by colliery spoil heaps.
But more must be done if we are to restore nature and combat climate change. As Professor Dieter Helm has argued, the value of land should not be measured solely by its capacity for built development. We will find it very hard to restore nature or tackle climate change unless we also restore natural capital in the 12.6 per cent of England that is currently green belt.
6. The case for reform: building on the green belt
Nevertheless, there is a strong case for loosening some green belts. We urgently need to build many more homes and we need more land for development.
Currently, homes are built in the green belt at an average density of around 14 dwellings per hectare, less than half that of new homes on non-green belt land. Only ten per cent of these are affordable. We can do better than that, but not without big changes to the housing market.
Anyone who thinks that simply releasing more green belt land will lead to a net increase in the delivery of new homes, or that these homes will be affordable and of high quality, has not paid attention to the shocking underperformance of the state-subsidised UK house building industry (cladding, snagging, mistreatment of leaseholders, dull design, energy inefficiency, game playing over ‘viability’ and worse). Opponents of development have rational reasons for thinking that it will be poor quality and make their lives worse.
Any government serious about addressing the housing crisis must tackle the shortcomings of the big builders, foster smaller firms and build many more social homes. It must also restore integrity to the planning system, which must be about building well, not stopping development.
When it comes to the green belt, it is worth dusting down some principles that were developed by CPRE and the planning consultancy, Urbed in 2015. Urbed had earlier proposed “that rather than nibbling into the fields that surround the city and all its satellite villages, we should take a good confident bite out of the green belt to create sustainable urban extensions that can support a tram service and a range of facilities”. For more details see my 2018 book, How to build houses and save the countryside.
The principles are:
- A national target of at least 60 per cent of new housing on brownfield land and a requirement on local authorities to consider fully the capacity of urban areas before arguing for green belt release.
- Plan properly for greenfield development. If green belt is reviewed, it should be reviewed as a whole, not chipped away site by site. The “exceptional circumstances” test should remain.
- Development should be sustainable and well-designed. It should not be left to the big house builders. There is a big role for small builders, self-builders, co-operatives, local authorities and housing associations.
- Local authorities should take the lead in agreeing the location and scale of development and should be given additional land acquisition and land assembly powers.
- There should be a system of land value capture so that a large part of the value created by the development accrues to the public, not the landowner, greatly improving the quality of development.
Following these principles would increase the number and quality of new homes built and help to overcome local opposition. But simply repeating the mantra, “down with the NIMBYs, we need to build in the green belt”, without serious attention to the quality of building, or the integrity of the planning system, will just result in more acrimonious battles over the countryside. And on past form, I would not bet on any government winning those battles.