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 Local Planning Authorities (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 addresses 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 addresses 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 local authorities 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.

A 2010 report by Natural England and CPRE (formerly the Campaign to Protect Rural England) concluded that Green Belt policy continued to be “highly effective” but called for “more ambition” to protect Green Belt land. In addition to preventing urban sprawl, CPRE pointed to other benefits of the Green Belt, including providing opportunities for fresh air and exercise for people living in nearby cities. CPRE has taken the stance that building on the Green Belt could “not solve the crisis in affordable housing”.

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 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also criticised the Green Belt system for being an obstacle to house building.

The Centre for Cities has suggested releasing Green Belt land within a short distance of train stations that serve major cities for development. The property agents Savills have suggested that losses in Green Belt land in one area could be offset by the designation of land as Green Belt elsewhere.

How large is the Green Belt?

England had around 16,382 km2 (or 6,324 square miles) of Green Belt land at the end of March 2022, covering 12.6% of England’s land area.

The Green Belt is clustered around 15 urban cores, the largest of which are London (5,062km2), Merseyside and Greater Manchester (2,489km2), and South and West Yorkshire (including Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford, 2,270km2).

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 proposals to change the planning system have once again brought the Green Belt to the fore. Put simply, some commentators have argued that the demand for greater housing supply will only be met if some development takes place in the Green Belt. Following the publication of the Government’s Planning for the Future White Paper in August 2020, questions resurfaced about the status of the Green Belt and how it should be protected.

An inquiry into the Future of the Planning System by the Housing, Communities, and Local Government Select Committee called for a review to “examine the purpose of the Green Belt, including whether it continues to serve that purpose … and what additional protections might be appropriate”. The Committee noted, however, that commentators were divided on whether Green Belt land should “never be built on” or constituted “an anti-growth mechanism”.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which followed the White Paper (and the Levelling Up White Paper in February 2022) would introduce significant changes to the planning system. Some commentators, including the CPRE and the property services group Leaders Roman, expressed disappointment that the Bill does not include provisions on the Green Belt.

The Government has stated that “existing Green Belt protections will remain”. It has also suggested that National Development Management Policies, which the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill would introduce and which would sit alongside Local Plans, might include protections for Green Belt land.

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