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 102.

    In my town, there is a fairly new apartment complex in the town centre, much of which is empty. However, we are having to fight planning permission for 400 houses right next to the canal, which is a tourist attraction. Surely until all available properties are inhabited, and all brownfield sites filled, there should be no building on our green belts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    We need to look at the other side of the equation rather than accepting that our population will inevitably head upwards every year. We have to use brownfield sites and make better use of urban spaces , BUT we also need a decent long-term policy to stabilise our population, and eventually reduce it to a more sustainable level. We can't go on adding millions of people every decade

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

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

    Any idea of the %age of food imported? We would starve within weeks without the millions of tons imported daily from around the world now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    I have a good job, earn a decent salary and live in Herts. Can I afford to buy a home in the area in which I live? No, I cannot because those already fortunate enough to own homes do their utmost to fight the building of any new housing. They do this not to protect the precious countryside but instead to keep supply of housing low, demand high and thereby secure their property values.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Funny how the government feel building houses on greenbelt is OK, but don't even think about building a road on it! Either greenbelt is protected or it isn't!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Build underground. Much more sustainable. Houses can be heated from ground source heat pumps, light can be funnelled in on fibre-optics and all our walls can be lined with LED screens that look like windows with views.

    At least we'll be in the right place for the next hurricane or nuclear alert. LOL

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    38. Richard Sweeney

    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.

    Been there. Done that. Strongly recommended. And not for the sake of science either, unless you include biology!

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Lots of people here predictably complaining about unsustainable development, and that only brownfield sites should be used. Does it not occur that brownfield sites are more expensive to develop, thus house prices will be higher? If villages and town's don't grow then they just become museums. A mixture of greenfield and brownfield development is fine, i.e. what already happens anyway!

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    The issue of housing development may be solved by developing brownfield sites and refurbishing run down/vacant properties. The country side is open to development, provided that the buildings comply with planning conditions. It is not likely that 'estates' will satisfy many of them. And rightly so. This debate should focus on preservation of the environment for the future. Not why can't we expand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    What we need it to rip down the cities and build them again. Every UK city is over crowded with poor quality houses ... not to mention the shoddy road systems etc ...

    Making use of all the brownfield sites we would not only be able to make cities with high quality, reasonably sized houses, but we would also manage to house more people and have better green spaces.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    "...9.8% of land in England is developed compared with 13.2% in Germany (so) ... the UK would only "look slightly different, but not much".

    I'd say a 35% increase is somewhat more than "slightly different". Damned statistics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Move away from the South East........problem solved!!!!

    But no doubt I'll just get a load negative marks because I dare to say that the biggest problem facing Britain (hence I've included Scotland, unlike the E.B.C) is London and the S.E

    just look at that map above, It's nothing to do with green belts, it's to do with this attitute of:

    "If I'm not in London, then I might as well not exist"

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    @70 - that £3b has to come from somewhere, which means the cost of a new home. If you want "low cost housing" you have to reduce the cost of making the housing, and increase the supply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Of course we should keep greenbelt otherwise cities & towns just keep getting bigger,BUT we should create & extend village like communities beyond or on the edge of greenbelt, that don't cost £300-500k each because of their amenitiy(the view). The problem is you can't build anywhere beyond that zoned residential, that is towns & cities & we are more & more living in something like zoos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    1. Walijczyk

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

    So that's where all the benefits scroungers live, then...? Not everyone who lives in the country is retired/unemployed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Will Britain remain a green and pleasant land. Of course not. We will carry on accepting the worlds flotsam & jetsam. Feeding them, housing them and educating them all in the name of charity, liberalism and tolerance. Or how other countries put it .........A soft touch. Carry on building, there are millions left to come in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    @71 Mike

    Completely agree. Once someone has bought their home they instantly become a NIMBY and try to stop houses being built anywhere near them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Just because the Green Belts were conceived in the 1940s it doesn't mean they're not just as relevant today. The pressure from developers to build on this land is, and has been even greater since John Prescott's South-East Plan to build another million homes, As a Conservative Councillor in the green belt,,residents in my town I rare implacably opposed to seeing the countryside concreted over.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    To suggest that the relaxation of planning laws is crucial to economic growth is claptrap. Governments and bodies such as the CBI have always looked for scapegoats to excuse the inadequacies of UK businesses which fail to compete internationally because they are too parochial, too averse to long term investment, too mediocre frankly. Concreting over the countryside is not the answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.


    Exactly! I'm not advocating a China style of birth control for the population but financially punishing people who have more than (lets say) two children would work fantastically.


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