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 62.

    The countryside is everyone's heritage, not just those alive today but for our successors for thousands of years into the future. To cast that aside along with proper regulation of development for some tenuous argument about economic growth is criminal vandalism. Build on brownfield and stop developer greed and the envy of townies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.


    How about a tax on countryside dwellers. They obviously benefit from the wealth created in cities while contributing nothing themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    If there's anything Sim City has taught me, it's that when you can't build out, build up. I see that we're a small country with limited space, and our tenancies are to attempt to spread out when we cannot afford to do so. Sure, green belt beauties are perhaps pointless to many, but we can't cut into agricultural land that it also protects without cutting it's much needed production.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Millions of people are in need of more affordable housing, including many young families and local workers priced out of the villages where they were brought up. Who is speaking up for them?

    The countryside has been evolving for centuries and will continue to do so. It is not a museum for weekenders and wealthy retirees. A living, working countryside needs new homes to thrive and survive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    This government were beaten back by the people when trying to sell-off woodlands. They thought we were too stupid not to realise it was all about the freeholds that lie beneath woodlands.

    Same approach, different tactic, by same government. Wriggling around for their friends in high places buying up green belt with intent to build with back-door planning permission.

    Green belt, must remain!

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Many countries without regulations have totally spoiled their countryside, where money rules as in the UK this is bound to happen. I find it disgusting that some want to concrete over our countryside to make way for immigrants! Cities equivalent to the size of Nottingham or Bristol every 10 years. Personally I would like to see the population reduced by 10 million over the next 50 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    VAT exemption for building on 'brownfield' sites should apply. Existing empty properties left to decay, owned by local authorities and private owners should be exempt from VAT to regenerate and returned to use.

    Focus on cracking down on sub-letting of social housing by fraudsters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Maybe houses should be designed in the shape of condoms instead of condominiums, to remind people that it is their procreation habits which create this unsustainable demand for more & more homes.

    If they were made in such a way as to inflate & increase space for larger familys, maybe, & then deflate as & when they leave the building.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.


    "Solution: do not have an increasing population - it's unsustainable"

    I completely agree, the UK is an island of limited space and it should be treated as such. There must be some way to limit the population without tipping the balance into an overabundance of elderly people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    The arrogance here is staggering.

    Not content with telling us how to live our lives townies now want to build on our working environment as well.

    It is about time rural councils acquired the power to levy their own congestion charges on city dwellers who infest the countryside like it's some sort of amusement park. £50 every time they leave London will do for a start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Logical outcome of government policy is for everone to live within the M25 and infill it with houses. Most of the country's public investment is put here anyway. Many new stations, Crossrail, Thameslink, mainline improvements linking south and north London; £1.30 flat bus fare (many don't pay) etc. Far easier to commute from Leeds to London than it is Leeds to Manchester. Just abandon the North.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    At last, the elephant in the room - too many people. Quite simply Britain is full. (So is the world for that matter)

    We need to take big and brave steps to control our population growth.

    As for the green belt, our countryside is the best thing we have. Don't destroy it. Build up, build clever, and build north. Create world class railways to spread the population around.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    A lot of people are just not interested in the outdoors or anything green. They want to live in a concrete jungle. Why else would you buy a new house with a lovely garden plot and make it low maintenance or leave it to be totally overgrown.

    So to talk about building in the green belt area has no effect on them whatsoever.

    There is talk of near where I live of a 700 home mega estate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    2. SanderDolphin - that is one of the most stupid posts I've read - "weeds and farmland" ?? Pffff....

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    There's no mention of what this does to wildlife or or environment or the extra pollution it causes.

    It makes me laugh when people say spread into the countryside and build new housing. They don't care abou the existing countryside as they have never visited it as they can barely get off their couch because of their lard arse or tear themselves away from their iPhone or Wii.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Adopting attractive Scandinavian models will only increase the birthrate and make the problem worse.

    Ah, those Scandinavian models!

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Comparing Germany and England's percentage of developed areas is nonsense. Besides the fact that the percentage difference noted would mean our cities would be a third bigger than they are now (a bit more than "slightly different"), Germany's population density is 593/sq. mile; England's is 1,023/sq. mile. They have an enormous amount of space per person to play with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    "presumption in favour of sustainable development",

    Development on greenfield sites is unsustainable. Sustainable means re-using what we are already using.

    Somebody said that if we have an increasing population we must build more homes. Solution: do not have an increasing population - it's unsustainable

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    So the answer to people bypassing greenbelt land and building directly on the countryside is to allow them to build on green belt as well as the countryside. Who can spot the flaw in this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    As soon as you create space it will be filled, Parkinsons Law. What people are failing to consider is critical resources like food, water and energy. We need to be considering population control as much as expanding towns and cities.


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