This briefing from the House of Commons library examines some of the controversy about the Green Belt in England and how policy towards the Green Belt might change.Jump to full report >>
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 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in December 2014. The committee concluded that there had been inappropriate development and local authorities should be encouraged to review their Green Belts.
The 2010 Natural England and CPRE report, Green Belts: A greener future, concluded 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 greenbelts could solve housing supply and affordability problems. The OECD has also criticised the Green Belt system for being an obstacle to house building.
Whether this level of protection for the Green Belt remains necessary or appropriate - or whether, conversely, it places obstacles in the way of providing new housing – remains controversial. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), for example, has questioned some aspects of the Government’s approach. In its initial analysis of the housing white paper (discussed later), the RTPI suggested that the role, purposes and social impact of Green Belts should be revisited and Green Belt boundaries “may well” need to change, albeit with safeguards:
"Green belt boundaries may well need to change, but only through careful reviews over wider areas than single local authorities, and where safeguards are put in place to ensure that development is sustainable, affordable and delivered in a timely manner, and without prejudice to the renewal of brownfield land".
Paul Cheshire, Professor Emeritus of Economic Geography, LSE, has argued that building on the least attractive and lowest amenity parts of greenbelts could solve housing supply and affordability problems. The OECD has also criticised the Green Belt system for being an obstacle to house building.
The Green Belt was 1,634,700 hectares at the end of 2016/17, according to statistics published by DCLG. The Green Belt has reduced in size by around 4,800 hectares since 2010/11, primarily because of local authorities adopting new plans that alter the area of that authority’s Green Belt. Eight local authorities adopted new plans in 2016/17, resulting in a decrease of 790 hectares.
Research by Glenigan in 2015 found “a sharp increase in the number of houses securing full planning approval in the greenbelt.” According to the research in 2009/10, 2,258 homes were approved in Green Belt areas. In 2013/2014, the number had risen to 5,607 and in 2014/2015, it was 11,977 homes. According to DCLG’s land use change statistics, 356 hectares of Green Belt land changed to residential use in 2015-16.
Government policy on protection for the Green Belt is set out in chapter 9 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. The NPPF states that that the construction of new buildings should be regarded as “inappropriate” for the Green Belt, although there are some exceptions, which are listed. It is for local authorities to define and maintain Green Belt land in their local areas. The Government expects local planning authorities with Green Belts to establish Green Belt boundaries in their Local Plans, which can be altered as part of the plan review process.
Online Planning Practice Guidance issued by Government in March 2014 aimed to make clear that “unmet housing need (including for traveller sites) is unlikely to outweigh the harm to the Green Belt and other harm to constitute the “very special circumstances” justifying inappropriate development on a site within the Green Belt”. This was followed up with further changes to planning guidance issued in October 2014.
The previous Government consulted on the case for changing planning policy and practice guidance to strengthen Green Belt protection in regard to traveller sites in September 2014 and revised its Planning Policy for Traveller Sites in August 2015.
From August 2015 the current Government announced that the Planning Inspectorate would monitor all appeal decisions involving unauthorised development in the Green Belt and that, in addition, it would consider the recovery of a proportion of relevant appeals in the Green Belt for the Secretary of State’s decision.
A December 2015 Government consultation proposed to amend Green Belt policy to allow starter homes to be built in the Green Belt when a site has been identified in a neighbourhood plan and to allow for starter homes to be built on some brownfield sites in the Green Belt.
In its summary of the consultation responses, DCLG noted that – although there was support for providing more policy support for new settlements as a way of meeting development needs – some concerns had been raised about (amongst other things) protecting the Green Belt. On development on brownfield land, the Government noted that here too there was broad support for strengthening policy, but some respondents had voiced concerns about unintended consequences. On starter homes, the Government remarked that there had been mixed views about whether rural exception sites should be used to deliver starter homes in rural areas and about whether (for example) this might make it more difficult to provide affordable housing.
The housing white paper, published in February this year, contained some proposals relating to planning and reiterated the Government’s commitment to the Green Belt. It also emphasised that authorities should amend Green Belt boundaries only when they can demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting their identified development requirements.
The circumstances in which future applications to build on the Green Belt might be considered were set out in a PQ reply in October 2017:
"[In] the Housing White Paper, Fixing our broken housing market, we proposed that a local authority should be able to alter a Green Belt boundary when it demonstrates that it has examined all other reasonable options for meeting its identified development needs, including:
We have been analysing the consultation responses on this proposed clarification, and will announce our conclusions in due course".
Research by Glenigan in 2015 found “a sharp increase in the number of houses securing full planning approval in the greenbelt.” According to the research in 2009/10, 2,258 homes were approved in Green Belt areas. In 2013/2014, the number had risen to 5,607 and in 2014/2015, it was 11,977 homes.
Media reports have suggested that house building and reforms to planning will be central to the Budget. The housing minister, Alok Sharma, has been quoted as suggesting that house-building would be “turbo-charged”:
"The prime minister is leading on this. She has said this is going to be the mission that she has in her government and we have a big meeting on Tuesday which she’ll be leading with the big developers, with housing associations, with local government, so that we can turbocharge our efforts to build more homes".
Despite several Government statements reiterating the Conservative manifesto pledge to protect the Green Belt, there has been speculation that the Budget may pave the way for a review of the Green Belt, to facilitate more homes being built.
Backing for a review of the Green Belt came from a survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), published in October 2017. In considering relaxing housing constraints, the OECD suggested (not for the first time) that planning regulations could hamper growth. Denser building (the OECD argued) might not be enough to meet the demand for more housing, and there might be other, better ways to integrate green space into cities rather than around them, so a review of Green Belt protection was needed:
"A careful reassessment of the overall economic costs and environmental benefits of maintaining the Green Belt is needed, including alternative ways to preserve or create green space, more integrated in the cities (parks) rather than around them".
The OECD acknowledged, though, that the Government was not so far persuaded.
The supporting document provides information on the percentage of Green Belt land by local authority area in England.
Separate Commons Library briefings on Planning for Housing and Stimulating housing supply give more information on housing issues. Briefings on various other matters to do with planning are available on the Library’s topic page for housing and planning.
Commons Briefing papers SN00934
Authors: Gabrielle Garton Grimwood; Cassie Barton; Lydia Jackson