The closer the general election, the more the debate around the Green Belt intensifies.
Green Belt: are we valuing it enough?
While developers generally have enjoyed a more lax planning regime, the relatively small area (13%) of England’s land area that is designated Green Belt has continued to defy the bulldozers. Frustration at this obstacle has caused some developers to resort to court - and recently win challenges at Redhill and Solihull. Others, who declare the Green Belt too degraded to make it worth saving, have stepped up their rhetoric.
The Government, meanwhile, seems to have hardened its resolve to defend the Green Belt. It has appealed against the Redhill judgment, and issued new guidance that reiterates the importance of protecting the Green Belt.
And it’s critical that planning inspectors follow this new guidance, especially in areas where there is real conflict between Government planning policies on housing and Green Belt protection, such as Cheshire East and Durham. To date, only the Greater London Authority has been assertive enough to exclude all Green Belt land from future development.
Why the Green Belt is worth it
Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles joined the throng by reaffirming that the Green Belt acts as the ‘green lungs’ of our urban areas. CPRE, naturally, supports this view. But Green Belts are primarily about good planning in towns and cities through encouraging urban regeneration; protecting attractive landscapes is a spin-off benefit. So, increasingly, developers and commentators have sought to draw attention to what they consider to be unattractive or inaccessible areas of the Green Belt, in order to support a wholesale weakening of the national policy.
For example, let’s consider the arguments that ‘intensive arable farmland is not environmentally valuable’ (Paul Cheshire from the London School of Economics) and that ‘some areas don’t have ecological merit and could be built on’ (Tom Pike from property consultants CB Richard Ellis). Most of the Green Belt – about two-thirds – is indeed in agricultural use. But when global population growth and climate change are putting increasing pressure on land, and when we grow less than two thirds of our own food, it seems strange to argue that growing food has no environmental value. Now, more than ever, we need to use land wisely and avoid unnecessary loss of countryside.
If we want to improve the ecological value of Green Belt land, the best way is to maintain the existing policy, rather than weaken it. The Colne Valley Regional Park was created by following up planning conditions to restore old gravel pits to the countryside, rather than condemning them as ‘scruffy’ land which would then have been developed as exurbia on the edge of West London. The value of Green Belt land goes well beyond biodiversity to capturing carbon, providing space for water to prevent flooding, and protecting water supply. The main value of the Lee Valley on the other side of London, for example, is as a resource for sport and recreation.
And there is already wide flexibility to build new housing on Green Belt land. Recent figures from Glenigan indicate that 5,600 new homes were approved on the Green Belt last year, a worrying 148 per cent increase since 2009.
We do need to build many more new homes: we are reaching crisis point as house building drops to its lowest level since the 1950s. But what we need are the right homes in the right places. This means protecting the countryside from urban sprawl, and making the best use of suitable derelict or redundant land in urban areas. Encouraging such an approach is a key purpose of Green Belt policy. Without the Green Belt, we would have the sprawl that we see across Europe and North America.
As our #WasteofSpace map shows, there are brownfield (previously developed) sites across the country, ranging from ex-chocolate factories to abandoned office blocks to airbases – many of which could prove suitable for housing development. Our recent report, Removing obstacles to brownfield development, highlighted policy measures that could promote building on such sites. ‘Brownfield first’ must increasingly become a reality rather than a vague ambition.
Find out more
Download our report: Removing obstacles to brownfield development (3MB PDF)
Help us find out how much brownfield land is available by nominating brownfield sites in your area that could be suitable for housing development in the future.