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How well is the Green Belt working?

The question of whether the Green Belt is working well, which is often tied up with questions of how to meet the need for housing, can prove contentious. Some commentators argue that the protections afforded by the Green Belt are too weak, and inappropriate development can encroach on the Green Belt, while others argue that the protections are too strong, and get in the way of building sufficient housing and so limit economic growth.

The Select Committee on Communities and Local Government published a report on the operation of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in December 2014. The committee concluded that there had been inappropriate development and local authorities should be encouraged to review their Green Belts:

The 2010 Natural England and CPRE report, Green Belts: A greener future, concluded Green Belt policy was “highly effective” in its principal purpose, but called for “more ambition” to further enhance the Green Belt protection for future generations. Paul Cheshire, Professor Emeritus of Economic Geography, LSE, has argued that building on the least attractive and lowest amenity parts of greenbelts could solve housing supply and affordability problems. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also criticised the Green Belt system for being an obstacle to house building.

Whether this level of protection for the Green Belt remains necessary or appropriate – or whether, conversely, it places obstacles in the way of providing new housing – remains controversial. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), for example, has questioned some aspects of the Government’s approach. In its initial analysis of the Housing White Paper in February 2017, the RTPI suggested that the role, purposes and social impact of Green Belts should be revisited and Green Belt boundaries “may well” need to change, albeit with safeguards:

Green belt boundaries may well need to change, but only through careful reviews over wider areas than single local authorities, and where safeguards are put in place to ensure that development is sustainable, affordable and delivered in a timely manner, and without prejudice to the renewal of brownfield land.

How large is the Green Belt?

The Green Belt was 1,629,510 hectares (16,295 km2) at the end of March 2018, according to statistics published by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). The Green Belt has reduced in size by around 10,020 hectares (100 km2) since 2010-11, primarily because of local authorities adopting new plans that alter the area of that authority’s Green Belt. Ten local authorities adopted new plans in 2017/18, resulting in a decrease of 5,070 hectares (51 km2) – the largest decrease in recent years.

How much building has there been in the Green Belt?

Research by the construction industry insight company Glenigan has found that the number of residential units built on the Green Belt has been increasing. There were 8.143 units completed in the Green Belt in 2017/18, 92% higher than in 2016/17. Of these, 3,387 were on ‘greenfield’ (that is, non-previously-developed) sites, almost three times the number in 2016/17.

According to MHCLG’s land use change statistics, a total of 2,890 hectares (28.9 km2) of Green Belt land changed to a developed use category in 2016-17, of which 1,783 hectares (17.8 km2, 62%) was not previously developed. 565 hectares (5.7 km2) of Green Belt land changed to residential use.

Green Belt planning policy

Government policy on protection for the Green Belt is set out in chapter 13 of the NPPF 2018, which opens by stating that:

The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.

The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. It is for local authorities to define and maintain Green Belt land in their local areas. The Government expects local planning authorities with Green Belts to establish Green Belt boundaries in their Local Plans, which can be altered as part of the plan review process.

The updated NPPF was published in July 2018, following a consultation. The Government response to the consultation highlighted the diversity of views expressed about the proposals relating to the Green Belt and brownfield land in the Green Belt and noted that there had been mixed responses on making greater use of brownfield land in the Green Belt. The Government would (it said) amend the NPPF to incorporate the suggested changes but would not review national Green Belt policy and would not ban all development in the Green Belt.

The NPPF 2018 thus reiterates Government policy and encourages the use of brownfield land in almost the same terms as the draft revised NPPF. On protecting the Green Belt, it urges LPAs to maximise the use of suitable brownfield sites before considering changes to Green Belt boundaries and sets out the conditions that must be fulfilled for “exceptional circumstances” to exist, to justify such changes.  NPPF 2018 – including its provisions on the Green Belt – is discussed at more length in the Commons Library briefing What next for planning in England? The National Planning Policy Framework.

The Planning Practice Guidance on housing and economic land availability assessment was updated in September 2018, following publication of the revised NPPF. It makes no mention of the Green Belt. There will be some further revision to the PPG, in the light of NPPF 2018, and so there might be some further guidance on Green Belt issues in due course.

A December 2015 Government consultation proposed to amend Green Belt policy to allow starter homes to be built in the Green Belt when a site had been identified in a neighbourhood plan and to allow for starter homes to be built on some brownfield sites in the Green Belt. In its summary of the consultation responses, DCLG noted that – although there was support for providing more policy support for new settlements as a way of meeting development needs – some concerns had been raised about (amongst other things) protecting the Green Belt. On development on brownfield land, the Government noted that here too there was broad support for strengthening policy, but some respondents had voiced concerns about unintended consequences. On starter homes, the Government remarked that there had been mixed views about whether rural exception sites should be used to deliver starter homes in rural areas and about whether (for example) this might make it more difficult to provide affordable housing.

The Housing White Paper, published in February 2017, reiterated the Government’s commitment to the Green Belt. It also emphasised that authorities should amend Green Belt boundaries only when they could demonstrate that they had examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting their identified development requirements.

Will there be more building in the Green Belt?

Backing for a review of the Green Belt came from a survey by the OECD, published in October 2017. In considering relaxing housing constraints, the OECD suggested (not for the first time) that planning regulations could hamper growth. Denser building (the OECD argued) might not be enough to meet the demand for more housing, and there might be other, better ways to integrate green space into cities rather than around them, so a review of protection was needed. The OECD acknowledged, though, that the Government was not so far persuaded.

Media reports at the time suggested that house building would be central to the Autumn Budget 2017, with reforms to planning. The housing minister at the time, Alok Sharma, was quoted as suggesting that house-building would be “turbo-charged” and there was speculation that the Budget might pave the way for a review of the Green Belt, to facilitate more homes being built. In the event, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond’s, speech gave a commitment to protecting the Green Belt:

Solving the housing challenge takes more than money—it takes planning reform. We will focus on the urban areas where people want to live and where most jobs are created, making best use of our urban land and continuing the strong protection of our green belt, in particular building high quality, high density homes in city centres and around major transport hubs.

Other Commons Library briefings

Separate Commons Library briefings on Planning for Housing and Stimulating housing supply  give more information on housing issues. 

Briefings on various other matters to do with planning are available on the Library’s topic page for housing and planning.

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