Other than for minor corrections (and new content about NPPF 2021 and the select committee report in June 2021), this briefing remains as published on 30 November 2020.

Current Green Belt planning policy

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 (LPAs) with Green Belts to establish Green Belt boundaries in their Local Plans, which can be altered as part of the plan review process.

Government policy on protection for the Green Belt is set out in chapter 13 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which opens by stating that the Government attaches great importance to Green Belts.  On protecting the Green Belt, the NPPF urges LPAs to maximise the use of suitable brownfield sites before considering changes to Green Belt boundaries.  The NPPF demands that there should be “exceptional circumstances” before Green Belt boundaries can be changed and says that inappropriate development is harmful to the Green Belt and should be approved only in “very special circumstances”.

Planning Practice Guidance on the Green Belt was published in July 2019, addressing questions about the factors that can be taken into account when considering development’s potential impact on the openness of the Green Belt.  It also addressed how plans might set out ways in which the impact of removing land from the Green Belt can be offset by compensatory improvements and how the strategic policy-making authority can ensure that compensatory improvements to the environmental quality and accessibility of the Green Belt will be secured.

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 NPPF in December 2014, concluding that there had been inappropriate development and local authorities should be encouraged to review their Green Belts.

The 2010 report from Natural England and CPRE (formerly the Campaign to Protect Rural England), Green Belts: A greener future, concluded that 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 Green Belts 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.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has also questioned some aspects of the Government’s approach. 

How large is the Green Belt?

The Green Belt in England was estimated to be around 16,140km2 at the end of March 2021. The Green Belt has shrunk by around 1% since 2006.  Changes in the size of the Green Belt are mostly due to local authorities adopting new plans that alter the size of their Green Belt.  In 2020/21 the Green Belt reduced by around 18 km2 for this reason.

How much building has there been in the Green Belt?

An estimated 93.2% of the Green Belt was undeveloped land in 2018, and this land was primarily used for agriculture (65.6% of all Green Belt land).  6.7% 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.

In 2017/18, 8.9 km2 of previously undeveloped Green Belt land changed to a developed use, of which 2.9 km2 turned into residential use.

What’s the future of the Green Belt? 

Recent discussion of how the Government will achieve its housebuilding targets has once again brought the Green Belt to the fore.  Put simply, some commentators have argued that the demand for housing will only be met if some development takes place in the Green Belt.  In the run-up to the white paper Planning for the Future, questions resurfaced about the status of the Green Belt and how it should be protected.

In a collection of essays published in July 2019, the think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs argued that, although most Green Belt land should remain, any which did not achieve its purpose should be selectively reclassified.  In his essay for that collection, the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, argued that regulation of land use had fuelled house price rises and “Nimbyism”.

A report for the think tank Centre for Cities in September 2019 argued that there was an “easy solution” to the crisis in housing supply and proposed four actions to achieve it, one of which was (with certain conditions) releasing for development Green Belt or agricultural land within 800 metres of any station with a service of 45 minutes or less to a major city.

In February 2020, the then Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, was reported as suggesting that building on Green Belt would be one of the “difficult choices” facing local and central government in building more homes and tackling issues of affordability.  Similarly, Sir John Armitt, the chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, was quoted in March 2020 as suggesting that, to avoid building on flood plains, there might have to be some building on the Green Belt, some of which he described as “scrappy”.

CPRE, though, took a different stance.  In a policy paper in February 2020, CPRE argued that the Green Belt would remain important in addressing climate and ecological emergencies, preventing urban sprawl and encouraging healthy lifestyles and wellbeing.

Planning for the Future white paper, August 2020

The white paper Planning for the Future  was launched on 6 August 2020.  The consultation on its proposed changes closed on 29 October 2020.  The Commons Library briefing Planning for the Future: planning policy changes in England in 2020 and future reforms examines the white paper’s proposals and some of the response to them. 

Planning for the Future proposed (amongst many other things) to streamline the planning process in England.  Simplified Local Plans would place land in three categories – growth areas “suitable for substantial development”, renewal areas “suitable for some development” and protected areas – which would (the white paper said) halve the time to acquire planning permission on larger sites identified in plans.  The Green Belt would be part of the protected category. 

Planning for the Future also said that, within the nationally-determined and binding housing requirement, the Green Belt will be a constraint.  In discussing the standard method for calculating housing need, the white paper went on to say that existing Green Belt protections will remain.

Reaction to Planning for the Future’s proposals

The Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee’s report in June 2021 on the future of the planning system in England examined Planning for the Future’s proposals. 

In its response to the Planning for the Future consultation, the RTPI argued that the concept of protected areas “had some value” but clear sub-categories would be essential. 

The planning consultancy Lichfields questioned how protected areas would be defined and voiced concerns about how exactly the constraints of the Green Belt would be factored in, when calculating local housing need.  Lichfields also considered how the provisions for release of land from the Green Belt might work in the reformed planning system, arguing that the Government had not distinguished between environmental and landscape constraints and those deriving from local policy.

Responding to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s call for evidence, the Centre for Cities argued that the Green Belt must be reformed and that “button development” around railway stations could help ease housing pressures.  In its Out-law blog, the law firm Pinsent Masons suggested that Planning for the Future’s proposals for protected areas were a “missed opportunity” to ensure that all Green Belt land continues to perform an effective function.

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