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.


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Even getting permission on "brown field" can be hard. I know someone who owns a small dis-used farm in Surrey - its never likely to be economically viable again, yet its probably going to take 3 to 4 yrs to get permission to knock down the various falling down buildings and turn it into a single dwelling - its not like they want to put up a housing estate, just a single dwelling of the same size.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    I regard myself as a NIMBP (not in my back pocket). If I received money from the construction industry like the Conservative party and many MP's, I'm sure I would be completely in favour of further building work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Developers hold enough land in their 'land banks' to build 280,000 new homes. Why don't they start developing these before leaning on the government to get this dangerous legislation passed. Also, whatever happened to 'Localism' and the 'Big Society'? All this proposed legislation will do is remove any scrutiny of development from local people and replace it with a presumption to say 'yes'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    67.Tyto alba

    I also agree with this statement, having children is not a human right it's a privalege. Popping out sprogs left right and center is both selfish and stupid, especially if those doing so are unemployed and/or claiming all the benefits they can.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Stevenage in Hertfordshire already has MASSES of land already set aside for housing but they keep expanding out the other side.

    A ploy often used is for developers to put in high numbers knowing that they will be rejected and the number they really intended will then be more acceptable

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    I work in planning, there is already enough land with permission to build set aside for nearly 500,000 homes so why the rush to destroy the countryside for greed. Slackening of the rules will allow development solely for profit not need. This a small country compared to most of Europe - go to Holland and see how thier open space is being lost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    If we had more rigorous birth control to keep our ever expanding population down we wouldn't have to build so many houses on so much green belt!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    61. Walijczyk

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

    Oh dear. Never heard of farmers?

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    For God's sake, don't let the government change the rules to favour development, because once the green fields and woodlands are gone, they're gone forever. Do we really want to live in a country buried under concrete and tarmac? Because that's what the future would be. And I bet the rich kids in the Tory party will make sure their private country estates are untouched. DON'T LET THIS HAPPEN!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    If 250,000 houses were built every year for 25 years it would solve the housing shortage and only use 1% of currently undeveloped land.

    The concreting over of the UK is just scaremongering by home owners to help maintain high house prices.

    What about future generations? If you can't work hard, raise a family and afford a home to live in then there is no incentive - revolution follows!

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    What would we all eat if we built over all the green belt? Surely we need to preserve our ability to produce food?

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    As someone who was born and grew up in the home counties I have to say the enormous irony here is that most of the green belters are people who've moved out of London only to declare that the countryside should be frozen in time henceforth. The net result of this is that property prices go up to the point that us 'natives' are forced out; all for someone else's vision of rural utopia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

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


    Just about the MONEY then. Eh Eric?

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    It's not developers who have made brownfield dearer to develop than greenfield. It's the previous builders, owners and us - the people who benefitted from what was done on that land.

    So we need to correct the imbalance, and make it so that it costs no more to develop brownfield land.

    A combined greenfield development tax/brownfield development subsidy. Which could be revenue-neutral.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    There are large tracts of brownfield sites that are ripe for development.Sadly because there's an extra cost in clearing these developers avoid them.Until that changes the risk is green belt will get concreted over as it cheaper for developers to develop virgin ground.Existing old housing stock should be redeveloped/modernised and brought back into use.Use more space above shops for flats in towns

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    There are too many people in this country and too many breeders having too many children. Time to penalise through taxation and benefit levels the over-breeders. Additional 5% taxation or a 5% benefit reduction per child for anybody with more than 2 children should make them less keen to spawn more mouths to feed and house.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    We have plenty of coastal areas which are suitable for land reclaimation.

    Presently, our attrocious plans are to give up land to the sea.

    Land reclaimation has been around for over 2000 years, yet with all our skills & technology & equipment we marvel at history while our stupidity brain cells increase at ever increasing rates greater than population increases.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    The green belt is a myth. Rushcliffe Borough Council have approved homes to be built on "green belt" land south of Nottingham. If they can do it, any council can.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Instead of blaming imigrants, the majority of whom come to this country in order to work, maybe we should be welcoming to them and instead deport all the useless permanantly unemployed people who suck up benefits and take up space that a hard working immagrant could occupy?
    That's a much more benficial alternative.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Since 2003 UK builders have had 300-350K building plots in their land banks, enough to last for 3 years, they are just looking for government handouts to increase their profits. 80% of planning is past on first approval and 80% of the rest on appeal, so 95% of applications get through. The change to planning legislation is all about increasing the value of Lord so &so's land as building plots.


Page 22 of 26



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.