Green belts and NIMBYism
The debate over how to accommodate growing city populations and associated development pressure is longstanding and occasionally acrimonious. It revolves around the relative merits of using previously-developed brownfield sites within existing urban cores, or building on land around the fringes of cities.
One objection to the second of these is that some of that land is designated green belt. Green belts first appeared in the 1930s as a means of preventing urban sprawl while providing rural leisure opportunities for city residents, protecting agricultural land and a host of other aims. Since the 1950s, they have been something of a mainstay on the UK planning scene and landscape alike.
But they are not static, partly because local authorities can alter their green belt boundaries from time to time. There are currently 14 such green belts in England and all the major conurbations have one, as do some smaller cities like Cambridge and Bournemouth. While currently accounting for over 12% of England’s land area, there are campaigns to introduce new green belts, for instance around Norwich and Southampton. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also have them.
Supporters claim that they are defend green belts as a cherished national asset with multiple economic, social, environmental and quality-of-life benefits, and that they are under unprecedented threat. Others argue that, by artificially constraining supply, they have contributed significantly to house price inflation and the persistent inability of housing supply to keep pace with demand.
Government statistics show that while the extent of green belt land has increased in the past two decades, it has fallen over the past six years by a total of about 5,000 hectares - or roughly 0.3% of the total area.
Figure 1: Number of authorities making changes to green belt boundaries, 2010-17
Source: MHCLG Green Belt Statistics, 2017
At that rate it would take nearly 2,000 years for green belts to disappear completely, so they look like they’ll be pretty safe until at least 2040. And they have added protection from the additional requirement that planning permission must be obtained for development in most circumstances, and provisions for further public consultation and objection.
Reform is also politically extremely difficult – no Prime Minister in recent times has dared to do anything other than firmly back the concept, and this also goes for mayors such as Sadiq Khan and Andy Street, whose cities are constrained by it. Yet the statistics suggest that the green belt can tolerate change without being undermined in terms of concept or function, and national planning policy provides for this. This provides some, albeit limited, scope to adjust the green belt so that it responds to the current context, nearly 80 years on from its invention.
Even so, rather than significant change in green belts, a more likely prognosis is that we will see higher density (and higher) development in urban cores, as we write elsewhere; more creative solutions for repositioning and finding alternative uses for city centre assets; and policy innovation to facilitate regeneration of derelict or under-used urban sites.