What is the green belt?
- By: Ashley Saunders
- December 2020
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a distinct shift from rural living too urban. The green belt acts as a way to halt the spread of urban developments into the countryside. But, it’s not without criticism.
Covering 1.6 million hectares in England, it’s the equivalent to 12.3% of all land. All 19 local authorities have at least 75% of their land designated as Green Belt, which adds up to nearly 350,000 hectares of land.
By having a green belt, villages surrounding cities retain their charm and rural way of life. Those wishing to develop property within a city must be creative with their land use to maximise the potential and balance the limits imposed by having a green belt.
Many agree that there needs to be measures in place to containing larger urban settings while giving nature space to coexist. That said, some believe that gaining planning permission is impossible on this land. However, it is possible to build on green belt land, if you follow certain conditions.
Defining the Green Belt
Elizabeth I tried to establish a three-mile wide cordon sanitaire around London in 1580, and while this was largely ignored, the roots of the concept stretch back centuries.
Fast forward to 1935 when the Greater London Regional Planning Committee proposed the idea of having a green belt. Known as the Metropolitan Green Belt, it encompasses London and the surrounding area.
In a nutshell, the idea of having a green belt is to create a buffer between large cities and smaller towns and villages. This buffer limits the urban sprawl and allows nature to coexist along with side humans.
Another benefit is that it enables villages and towns to maintain their unique character and lifestyle. Also, it helps to preserve areas of outstanding natural beauty for future generations.
These areas of sizeable open land must always be open and never built upon. Savills estimates that the English green belt is primarily made up of agricultural land (72%) and woodland (13%), with the rest (15%) having some form of building or structure.
What about brownfield land?
Land that has been already been developed is known as brownfield. Various governments have tried to shift developments from undeveloped ‘green’ land to brownfield sites. For example, in 1998, the Labour government set a target of 60% for new developments to be built on brownfield land.
By 2010, it was estimated that 76% of new dwellings were built on land that was previously developed with the government continuing to stress the importance of brownfield redevelopment over greenfield.
How can I find out if my land is in the green belt?
You should contact your local planning authority to find out if your land is in a green belt area, and any policies or restrictions that may apply as a result.
Can you buy some of this ‘green’ land to develop?
Occasionally properties on green belt land are available for sale. However, it can be an uphill battle to gain planning to replace a current dwelling and even harder to gain permission to build an extension or a completely new dwelling.
Recent changes to the planning rules
Generally speaking, any kind of construction on the green belt is frowned upon. However, as the national planning policy framework is constantly changing, it might be possible.
For example, in the last few years, there has been some easing for agricultural, recreational buildings or starter homes and affordable housing.
As the government has set bold targets to built more affordable homes, they’ve had to relax the planning on green belt land and many local councils have also release unused brown field sites to meet these goals.
What can you build on green land?
For the average person, it’s unlikely you’d get planning for a new dwelling unless it’s of architectural significance with green credentials to match.
However, you can buy and replace an existing building. Another option is to extend, typically you’ll be able to add up to 30% of the current dwelling. With either option, you’ll be subject to multiple conditions such as design, style, and overall height.
Compared to extending on non-green belt land, this maximum is far reduced from the 50% limit that usually applies.
Criticism of the concept
While many support the ideals of having a green belt, it’s not universally supported. An issue created by having protected belt is that land within this area becomes increasingly more expensive and subject to denser development, pushing up property prices.
Another common criticism is that it acts as a barrier to growth. Some will argue that it’s unreasonable to insist that more housing is built while continuing to protect a certain strip of land.
Some will assert that having preserved land, does little to protect nature. Instead, it protects industrial agriculture, which creates a different set of issues including increasing the flood risk in the cities as excess rainwater is pumped into local rivers.
There has been much research that has looked into the cost and benefits of developing a small portion of the green belts. The Adam Smith Institute, for example, estimates that up to 800,000 new homes could be built on a strip of land half a mile wide around London.
In February 2016, housing charity Shelter published a report ‘When brownfield isn’t enough‘ which concludes, ‘Building on some bits of the green belt should be an option’.
Others favour relaxing the rules to allow lower-density developments that are generously spread over the protected area. That said, many people and conservation charities hold fast to the idea that simply allowing development anywhere creates a payday for property developers and puts the countryside at risk.
It’s unlikely we’ll see the green belt abolished, despite the need for more housing. However, we could see flexibility introduced into the system. The Savills’ research team believes the system should allow the trading of existing strips and capture of new land to offset any land released.
Under this system, the total amount of undeveloped land around cities across the country remains unchanged. However, local authorities could develop a portion of their green belt as long this could be offset either by creating a new strip in their area or by working with another authority who’d capture land on their behalf.