The Green Belt is an emotive issue. Its proponents and opponents hold deeply entrenched views as to its purpose and future.
The concept of Green Belts emerged in post-war Britain under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Their purpose was to provide a reserve of public open spaces for recreational purposes. The policy was implemented in 1955, principally to stop the expansion of major conurbations. The policy has now been repeated in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which sets out 5 purposes of the Green Belt. This strengthens the view that the Green Belt is to be a barrier against the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas.
It is, therefore, clear that current policy on Green Belts has lost the initial rationale of their being recreational spaces for inner city dwellers – the “green lungs” of the city.
This policy is all well and good whilst there remains an adequate supply of housing land elsewhere. However, Britain is well below the targets for required new house construction, and has been for many years. There are a variety of reasons, the recent economic depression being one. However, a major factor has been the diminishing amount of “brown” or “already developed” land. In a country with a growing population, the demand for new housing is ever greater. If we are to meet this demand one area which requires review is the extent and purpose of the Green Belt.
The issue of Green Belt development is particularly topical in relation to London. The recent report issued by London First, Quod and SERC reviews the purpose of Green belt in relation to London, and concludes whilst it continues to play an important role it is not a “sacred cow”. Carefully designed development can take place within the Green Belt in a manner compatible with its principle purpose. The report encourages all local authorities to review the size and boundaries of their Green Belts and to make adjustments in their local plan reviews.
So how does this affect the inhabitants of the South East? Nearly all the local authorities have shortfalls in their housing allocations, and the number of new build homes delivered over the last few years is woefully below target. With an embargo on “back garden” development, a lack of viable brownfield sites and a spiralling demand for housing in both the private and public sectors many authorities are recognising the need to review Green Belt policies and are looking to allocate new development within the Green Belt which is sustainable and does not cause demonstrable harm.
Green Belt as a land use in the South East accounts for 16.6% of land mass, whereas green space (i.e. rural areas not designated as Green Belts) accounts for 84.8%. There is, clearly, an amount of “green” land available for development to ease the housing crisis without detrimentally affecting the amenity of the inhabitants.
The main question to be answered is how does an authority decide which area of Green Belt should be protected from development. Authorities should look at the quality and current use of the land. Land uses in the Green Belt are many and different and land quality is variable. Uses range from intensive agriculture, recreational use such as golf courses, commercial uses such as airports through to purely recreational uses such as parks and national parks. There are bound to be areas within the Green Belts that are of little public benefit or poor environmental quality. If these are compatible with a sustainable form of residential development this should not be refused just because of Green Belt status.
There should not, therefore, be a policy of designating Green Belts with a uniform “circular” shape as a specified barrier around urban settlements, but rather they should be reviewed and designated according to their merits.
Had this “educated” approach been adopted in the 1947 and 1955 legislation we might well still have and enjoy villages which are sustainable communities, with shops, schools, pubs and village greens, rather than the dormitories many have become, whilst still retaining vibrant and viable green open spaces so typical of the ideal of the English countryside. If we are now to meet the demands for housing in the South East we must view each Green Belt on its merits. Whilst it is to be preferred, where possible, for development to take place on brownfield sites this should not exclude as a matter of immutable policy the possibility of Green Belt development.
Article was first published in Kent on Sunday on 8 March 2015.