Green belt planning policy

The government states that the “fundamental aim” of the green belt “is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open” around urban areas. It is for local planning authorities (LPAs) to define and maintain green belt land in their local areas. Government policy on the green belt is set out in chapter 13 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

LPAs should set out green belt boundaries in their local plans. They can change the boundaries of green belt land in their area as part of the local plan review process. However, government guidance advises LPAs to only change green belt boundaries in “exceptional circumstances”.

LPAs also decide planning applications on green belt land. Government guidance advises LPAs that, in general, development on the green belt is “inappropriate” and “harmful to the Green Belt”. It provides that LPAs should allow development on the green belt only in “in very special circumstances”.

Proposed changes to green belt planning policy

The government has proposed updating its guidance to make clear that LPAs are not required to review and alter green belt boundaries if building on green belt land would be the only way of meeting housing need. It consulted on the proposed changes between December 2022 and March 2023. At the time of writing, it has not yet responded to the consultation.

Green belt statistics

How large is the green belt?

England had around 16,384 km2 (or 6,326 square miles) of green belt land at the end of March 2023, covering 12.6% of England’s land area.

The green belt is clustered around 15 urban cores; the largest are London (5,085 km2), Merseyside and Greater Manchester (2,477 km2) and South and West Yorkshire (including Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford, 2,465 km2).

How much building has there been on the green belt?

An estimated 93.1% of the green belt was undeveloped land in 2022. This land was primarily used for agriculture (65.0% of all green belt land). 6.8% of green belt land was developed, with over half of this developed land accounted for by roads and other transport infrastructure. Residential buildings accounted for 0.3% of green belt land.

From 2019-20 to 2021-22, 71.5 km2 of previously undeveloped green belt land changed to a developed use, of which 7.6 km2 turned into residential use.

How well is the green belt working?

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has noted that stakeholders are divided on whether the green belt should “never be built on” or constituted “an anti-growth mechanism” (PDF). Some commentators argue that green belt protections are too weak, and inappropriate development can encroach on the green belt. Others argue that the protections are too strong and that the green belt is a constraint on building enough homes.

For example, CPRE has argued that building on the green belt could “not solve the crisis in affordable housing”. In addition to preventing urban sprawl, CPRE and the London Green Belt Council have pointed to other benefits of the green belt, such as providing opportunities for public recreation.

On the other hand, think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs have argued that the release of (at least some) green belt land could help “solve the housing crisis”. The Centre for Cities has suggested releasing green belt land within a short distance of train stations.

What’s the future of the green belt? 

Recent proposals to reform the planning system have once again brought the green belt to the fore. The government has proposed updating its guidance to clarify that LPAs are not required to change green belt boundaries to meet local housing need.

The proposed changes have been welcomed by some, such as CPRE and the London Green Belt Council. Others, such as the Home Builders Federation, have expressed concern, however, that strengthening green belt protections would impact housing delivery and the government’s aim to build 300,000 new homes per year.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee (now the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee) has called for a review to “examine the purpose of the Green Belt”.

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