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 122.


    If we carry on as we are we will destroy the country, just stop and deccentralise the economy out of the cities again.

    Just stop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Why not just concrete over the River Thames & re-classify it as part of Londons sewers, which is more to the truth anyway & at least concreting/tunneling over it will prevent its attrocious smell abusing ones nostrils while munching a bacon roll for breakfast.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Aesthetics aside, no-one has mentioned the unsustainability of building houses out into the countryside miles from facilities, employment etc. It's entirely the wrong approach at a time when driving is again becoming the preserve of the well-off due to skyrocketing running costs and when rural public transport is being decimated by cuts. US-style sprawl would result in US-style car dependence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    monkey_chunks: the problem is that extremely low-density development means long distances to "local" amenities, car-based transport, and weak community identity: neither socially nor ecologically sustainable. However it is quite possible to combine high-density development with access to green space: think urban parks, allotments, compact villages, access to countryside by bus or train. (cont.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.


    Seems to me that the problems we are faced with today are a direct result of the actions and inactions of the oldies.

    We could make a lot of space today simply by forced emigration.

    Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece all need economic stimulous .. so lets build mega estates for them there ... would be cheaper on the health and pension provision too.

    Time the oldies reaped what they sowed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    @ jclamond (no 31)

    You clearly don't live in an area with brownfield sites. I live in S. London where every available patch is being developed with blocks of 10-20 flats. 4 egs: a furniture shop, printer's, forge, rental garages within 150 yds of me have been swept away with 42 flats and 10 houses in their place. Result: noise, fights over parking, 6 wk wait for doctor appt, traffic gridlock.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    benbowlane 87, completely agree with you, trouble is we are a minority view, everyone else either has a vested interest in more people/houses and overcrowding in what is already one of the most densely populated countries in the modern world or they just can't be bothered. I'm considering Australia for better prospects for my family, just wish I didn't have to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    If we liberalised building land and planning, it would get the economy running again. I own my own home but my children despite having good jobs are unable to get on the "ladder". Houses need to fall in real terms for affordability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    That's it, scapegoat immigrants as usual. When my wife moved here she didn't need a new house, she lives with me in my hitherto under-occupied one. Similarly many recent EU arrivals occupy properties much more intensively than we natives would consider comfortable. The housing crisis is entirely down to greedy banks refusing to lend and housebuilders who charge too much for a substandard product.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    1 Minute Ago
    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.

    You're wrong. The population bubble like any other bubble will eventually burst & like all else there will be a collapse, which means concreted land can simply be returned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    We are gradually concreting over britian by gradually adding more lanes to the M25 anyway. The population is growing too quickly because we need immigrants to pay tax to pay for the aging populations pensions. This country needs a long term view. Not that we have a say in our country any more. Thats down to Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    If our spineless governments had the guts to cut immigration we would not have to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    In terms of countryside, we're not really talking about unspoilt natural land, are we. The majority of our countryside has already been altered drastically by man in mass deforrestisation and rural farming lanscaping to create grazing fields and arable land. I say build away here.

    What we need to protect is AONB, that are still natural, unharmed and unchanged by man: our forests, our fells...

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Britains population in 1946 was around 48.9 million, 2010, its approximately 61.1 million

    Its funny & pure hypocracy those who live in present housing dont mind that the countryside was often dug up for them but they refuse to dig up more of it for others. Maybe they should have kept their legs closed & pleaded not tonight I've got a headache

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    @19. Corrado Blaise 'You only have to look at Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo etc to see how massive populations can accomodated.'

    Hong Kong and Singapore are cities, Tokyo a massive urban sprawl.

    Is it acceptable for older generations to have relatively spacious housing that obviously encroached on green space when built, while younger ones are packed into tower blocks?

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    The green belt cannot be protected forever, because the population is increasing at an alarming rate. We ALL have 2 choices, build outwards, or build upwards. How many of you want to live on the 90th floor? Bet you all said 'not me! ' So, outwards we go then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Major supermarkets have secret land banks within towns/cities, in UK, as part of their business strategy for domination over 25yrs.

    This business model excludes ability for homes to be built on clean 'brownfield' and abandoned sites. Sort that.

    Plus. Too many unfinished housing estates all across the UK abandoned after 2008 banks crash. Sort that.

    There is no excuse for greenbelt building!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    I totally agree with what all the other comments have said about using brownfield sites, as we will need to keep hold of these green belts as well as all farmland to make sure we can produce meat, vegetables, grain etc to feed our ever increasing population.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Current planning rules force the ghettoisation of urban areas by building on more and more urban green spaces. New houses are built on people's gardens, in old school playing fields, on allotments and other recreational areas. Is it any wonder there are riots? There's no free space any more.

    The green belt causes the UKs boom/bust cycle and should be loosened to allow market forces to act.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Zero houses should be built on green land. If we need new housing, regenerate the inner cities and other brown field waste land.


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