What would Britain look like without a green belt?


Plans to speed up England's planning process put the green belt at risk, campaigners warn. But what would the country look like without such a system?

It is, according to its supporters, the ultimate guarantee that the land is kept green and pleasant.

Encircling British cities and towns, it is more than just a set of controls and regulations - it reaffirms the British self-image as a country of rural, pastoral idylls that, in reality, the majority of Britons no longer live in.

The green belt may be a product of the 1940s, but a row over the government's proposed planning bill shows that it carries an emotive resonance that is very much alive today.

Though often misapplied to refer to the countryside in general, the term green belt refers to a specific areas of rural land where development is restricted.

For its supporters it has preserved cherished landscapes and the British way of life. Its critics claim it has hindered development, stifled growth and fuelled house price inflation.

Few, however, ask the most radical question of all - what would the nation look like if it had never been created?

Map of green belts in England

Rarely, after all, has a government policy left such a visible and long-lasting mark.

"If you fly over the British countryside, you can see it," says Terry Marsden, professor of environmental policy and planning at Cardiff University and author of Constructing the Countryside.

"You're passing over settlements that are very visibly ringfenced."

Its advocates say that, without the protection it has afforded, cities like London would expand ever-outwards, subsuming smaller settlements beyond its boundaries such as Hertford and Guildford. Opponents say other European countries have managed to prevent this kind of urban creep without green belt policies.

Its spirit has been repeatedly been invoked in the debate over a proposed bill to streamline the planning system in England by creating a "presumption in favour of sustainable development", making it harder for councils to reject projects.

The government insists the green belt would be protected under the reforms. Planning Minister Greg Clark says they would strengthen rules around building on such land and give more say to local people.

What is the green belt?

  • Green belts are planned public open spaces safeguarded from development
  • England has 14 green belts, making up 13% of total land
  • Scotland has 10 designated green belt areas
  • Wales has one strip between Newport and Cardiff
  • Based on a June 2010 policy change, Northern Ireland no longer has green belt designations
  • Some 30 million people live in urban areas within green belt boundaries
  • Intended uses are providing countryside access for urban dwellers, outdoor sport, attractive landscapes, nature conservation as well as maintaining agriculture and forestry
  • Property prices are 20% higher than average and land prices are lower

But groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) say the bill's proposed targets for housing would undermine the special status long afforded to 13% of English soil.

The sensitivities invoked are particularly British. All sides have been keen to stress the need to act as custodians of the countryside, protecting the landscape from US-style low-rise sprawl.

Politicians have long been aware that the notion chimes deeply with the British sense of self, and is meddled with at one's peril. During Labour's time in office, then-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott faced regular complaints that his housing plans were a threat to the green belt.

And now ministers' fiercest critics, including the National Trust, the Daily Telegraph and a number of backbench Tory MPs, are scarcely typical of the kind of antagonists to a Conservative-led administration.

But they are reminiscent of the very movement that brought about the green belt in the first place, with groups like the CPRE lobbying during the 1920s and 1930s for safeguards against urban sprawl and so-called "ribbon" development.

In 1935 London's regional planners proposed the Metropolitan Green Belt and the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act encouraged local authorities to protect the land around towns and cities from building.

Few would question the long-lasting impact of the policy. But conservationists on one hand and advocates of development on the other disagree over its extent and whether it has been positive or negative.

Why change?

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles says the planning delays cost the economy £3bn a year. He argues the system has to be simplified to take away delays.

The Guardian's Simon Jenkins, who is also the chairman of the National Trust, disputes the idea that the current system impedes growth. His evidence is "hypermarkets that encircle almost every English city and town, 'doughnutting' their centres with blight".

But the chief executive of UK Regeneration, Jackie Sadek, argues in the Times that, in opposing changes, the National Trust has got its priorities wrong. She says complicated planning at the moment allows developers to "work the system".

The question of what the UK countryside would look like without it may be answered in the years ahead by Northern Ireland, which in 2010 replaced its green belt with a new set of planning instruments.

According to Jack Neill-Hall of CPRE, the UK's traditional communities and landscape would have been subsumed under an ever-encroaching spread of low-level development during the post-war reconstruction had there been no green belt.

"Without it, you might have ended up with an entirely urbanised south-east of England," he says.

"Our cities could have sprawled out like Los Angeles, and because there would have been no incentive to develop brownfield land the inner cities might have decayed like in Detroit."

Indeed, such campaigners say the government is not doing enough to exploit disused industrial land for new housing. According to the National Land Use Database there are 63,750 acres of brownfield sites in England, up 2.6% on the previous year and enough for more than a million new homes.

BBC Newsnight reports from the frontline of the planning debate

Others are less convinced. Critics of the system point out that 9.8% of land in England is developed compared with 13.2% in Germany, a country without a green belt equivalent.

For this reason, Dr Oliver Hartwich, an economist with the Centre for Independent Studies, who has studied the British system, believes that without the postwar planning system, the UK would only "look slightly different, but not much".

Instead, he suggests the real impact of the green belt has been to fuel house price inflation and push development further into the "real" countryside beyond the green belt, leading to more commuting, fuel use and stress.

"No-one wants to concrete over the countryside," he adds. But British cities are overcrowded.

"What this sort of planning does is encourage a system where bubbles are likely. The idea that you need to get into the property market in your early 20s is very harmful but it's something that this planning system promotes."

Whichever side is correct, the debate highlights a potential disconnect among Britons who shudder at the notion of the green belt's integrity being threatened yet aspire to live in detached homes within spacious, executive-style edge-of-town developments.

But as the government is discovering, the UK's pastoral self-image is one that politicians meddle with at their peril.

Additional reporting by Virginia Brown.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    If we do away with the Green Belt, out of control councils will see it as a Golden Opportunity to build on everything and destroy our beautiful country to satisfy their lust for ever larger pensions and so called executive pay-offs from the increased council and business taxes. We must not let it happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I think the real question should be: Should we allow the global population to continually expand and therefore require continued destruction of our environment, food supply and general quality of life?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    U212709 says:

    "The village is which I live is today 10 times larger than 40 years ago. Time to stop."

    It's 10 times larger because you and your neighbours live there, mate. You can't have your cake and eat it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I am affraid this is all down to the Government both Labour and Conservative letting in to many immigrants especially EU countries into this country than what this small island can cope with, The green lands of this country should not be made into housing estates, which in turn will make more pollution

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.


    I'm not sure how adopting a beautiful Scandinavian will help our population problem, but I'm willing to give it a go for science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Something that I have never been able to understand is why councils, when they have evicted someone from one of their houses, then board it up! What is the point of leaving houses empty for however long, then having to spend money to make them habitable again? Green belt land should be left alone while these houses are still empty, and there is ample brown belt land to develop on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The problem lies in something very british - Gardens. In Europe towns are smaller and browner because they build good quality apartments - whereas we build poor quality houses. If we don't want to build on the countryside then those of us who live in towns (including me) need to get used to the idea of living in apartments not houses. That will only happen if the quality of apartments is improved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    How dare these countryside alliance people bang on about protecting the vast tracts of greenbelt without acknowledging that their campaigns are condemning millions of people to live in tiny,overpriced houses that the the greenbelters wouldn't live in themselves.
    The greenbelt protects old England for the few whilst condemning the many to live in super-urbanised cramps environments. Very wrong!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Supporting an ever growing population's needs is unsustainable. We need to deal with the problem at source. Reward co-habitation, reduce single teenage pregnancy rate (worst in Europe) e.g., by removing benefits/housing advantages, eliminate family/child benefits, reduce not increase benefits for those with large families. And if we have to build flats, adopt attractive Scandinavian model/designs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    @26 r3loaded:
    It's rarely the green hippie types that are against developments outside of large cities. It tends to be middle-aged (and older) people with sizeable wealth, many retired, many moved FROM the cities, of various political persuasions.

    Common to all of them is a desire to prevent anyone else having the lifestyle they have got.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    --I agree with your comment ref. Matthew but for one thing. He was trying to say that Britain in general and England in particular is full. 64 million and counting.That's just the ones we know about. Therein lies the problem. It's not more houses we need, it's less people. I don't care if they are black, white or green with pink spots. Just less of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    We have more than enough brownfield available to solve our housing problems. Developing it is more costly to the developers than developing green belt, hence their reluctance to do so. If property developers sacrificed a small amount of their profits and developed brownfield sites we wouldn't even be having this discussion. Our cities would look better too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    1. Anecdotally there are undreds of thousands of empty homes across England. Before any more are built these should be used.

    2. Successive governments have paid lip-service to supporting green belts and opposing ribbon development while imposing policies that do the opposite. This new policy is the same.

    3. The village is which I live is today 10 times larger than 40 years ago. Time to stop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    The housing shortage is due to an unsustainable growth in population, largely due to seriously flawed immigration policies over the past 60 years. It's self evident that an ever increasing population will means high prices and shortage of land, just another of the many things successive Governments have proved incapable of understanding. No wonder politicians have lost our respect and confidence

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    We need population control. We also need considerably more of the population living outside of the south-east.

    Building on brown-field sites will only take you so far. A healthy balance needs to be struck between all of these things, rather than digging feet in the ground and saying 'NO' to absolutely everything

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    All of this talk about expanding cities and population makes me sick. The answer is simple PULL OUT OF EUROPE and stop the vast ammounts of immigrants coming in. Its simple the number of people now pulling off this countrys resourses such as housing NHS benefits are now massive, we cannot afford this mass pulation increase.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Yesterday there was an article on "shoebox houses". To avoid those, we need more space to build proper houses. It would spur economic growth and create jobs through house building and push down house prices.

    The problem is the green hippie types - according to them we can't build upwards because it's too American (NYC), and we can't build outwards because it's too American (LA). Go figure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    9. "If we don't build, people will be priced out of the market or have no where to live."

    I think it's a bit late for that, people are already priced out of the market. As a young professional in the South East, I have very few choices. I'll be emigrating in the next year or so, not just because of housing, but for a better quality of life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    To the comment that the countryside would "look slightly different, but not much" if there were no green belt, I suggest that the converse is also true. Is there really much more development outside the green belt? How have house prices been inflated by this? Houses are capital assets that need a loan; low incomes and banking malpractice have made that difficult for many people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.


    A post attacking someone else's spelling and grammar contains the excellent phrase "with by". How ironic.


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