What is the Green Belt, and why does it matter?

Avatar for Philippa Oppenheimer
By Philippa Oppenheimer
29th July 2021

Green Belt is a term you hear used a lot in conversations about the countryside, habitats for wildlife and planning where new building work might happen. But what does it actually mean?

‘A belt around our cities’

The term ‘Green Belt’ might spark different ideas in each of us. For some, it may unearth memories of Great Uncle Dennis’s fetching accessory, which you were only too glad he was wearing as he took to the dancefloor last Christmas. Or it might take you back a few years to geography classes but the meaning of the term you just… can’t… quite… remember.

Well, when we at CPRE, the countryside charity, talk about ‘the Green Belt’, we’re actually talking about green space, usually around large cities, which is protected from developments like new roads or buildings. Think of it as your local ‘countryside next door’.

Four people lie in a grassy meadow with a view
Enjoying the countryside next door: reclining in a meadow in Bath’s Green Belt

But why are we so passionate about this issue, something that we’ve worked on for almost a century?

The idea of Green Belts has been around since 1890 when it was proposed by a town planner called Ebenezer Howard to ‘always preserve a belt of country around our cities’.

This idea was first formally proposed by the London Regional Planning Committee in 1929, after fears that urban expansion was resulting in a lack of green space in the capital.

Fast-forward to 1938, and the protection of London’s Green Belt land was formalised in law with the purpose of keeping urban sprawl in check, preventing towns from merging together and promoting the recycling of derelict land (another concept that we at CPRE are still calling for today).

London and beyond

Nearly a century since Green Belts were first formalised, London’s Green Belt is now one of 14 others throughout the country, covering 1,638,610 hectares of England’s land area – that’s an area more than three-quarters the size of Wales.

This means that 13% of England has the absolute highest level of land protection that we have, meaning that it should never be built on except in exceptional circumstances.

As time has gone on, the purpose of Green Belt has also expanded. Originally devised for the purpose of protecting open land, we now know they have masses more benefits, such as tackling issues such as air pollution, slowing and reducing the impacts of climate change and providing essential habitats for wildlife. And many Green Belt areas are in agricultural use, meeting local needs for food.

Four women picnic on a hill with woodland visible below
Fresh air and good company on Reigate Hill, Surrey, in London’s Green Belt | UrbanImages / Alamy

Fresh air and a leg stretch

Amongst this, we definitely can’t overlook the benefits that Green Belt can offer for our health and wellbeing. This is even more apparent than ever following the coronavirus lockdowns, where we felt more connected than ever to our local spaces and countryside next door.

It’s not surprising that we’re using these areas for fresh air and exercise. England’s Green Belts are criss-crossed with public rights of way, including over 12% of the country’s National Cycle Network, and roundly stocked with gorgeous outdoor areas including 23% of the country’s registered parks and gardens and 47% of all country parks.

And these girdles of green around our built-up areas are rich in nature, too. Over a third of the country’s community forests (forests connected to and nearby urban communities) are in the Green Belt, as well as tens of Local Nature Reserves.

These corridors of nature and green space work brilliantly for wildlife, allowing creatures to move between habitats safely and flourish in a mix of landscapes.

And if we need a reminder of the benefits to us humans of being in these green, wildlife-filled spaces, pop on some headphones and sample our Sounds of tranquility recordings for a bit, recalling what value being immersed in nature has. No surprise then that the government are investing in ‘green prescribing’, where patients might be connected to activities in nature, such as local walking groups, community gardening and food-growing projects. Green Belts give millions of us ready access to these green spaces.

Keeping the threats at bay

But for all their benefits, our Green Belts aren’t without their threats. The number of housing units proposed on Green Belt land has continued to increase since 2012. Our regular State of the Green Belt reports show that challenged by housing targets, Local Planning Authorities often remove land from the Green Belt to provide space to meet housing targets – something that should only happen under ‘exceptional circumstances’.

A wooden sign announcing a park for wildlife and people
Green Belts preserve places for wildlife and people | Peter O'Connor / Flickr

Here at CPRE, we’ve campaigned for many years on the enhancement and protection of the Green Belts. Places such as London’s Lee Valley Regional Park are exceptional examples of the potential our Green Belts have for people and nature.

Policies such as ensuring that recyclable disused land (sometimes called brownfield) is used for new buildings before green spaces are is just one of the ways that we can protect our Green Belt whilst also ensuring that we have enough land to build the affordable homes that are so badly needed.

Instead of viewing the Green Belts as a limitation to building more homes, we need to focus on restoring and enhancing the Green Belt so it can continue to provide a space for nature and a place to relax, play and grow our food.

North Downs Green Belt
Alamy