English village surrounded by green fields

+ Some green belt land will need to be developed if the UK is to meet its housing targets, and this requires a shift in policy.

I believe that green belt needs a fundamental re-think because it holds some of the answers to the UK’s housing crisis.

First introduced in 1938, green belt is often cited as one of the great successes of our planning system. Even today, its fundamental aim, as set out in national policy, remains unchanged – “to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open”. 

Recently, the UK Government boldly announced, “there’s no need to build on Green Belt” to deliver long-promised homes. The solution, it says, is to loosen planning controls on brownfield sites and “get on with it”.  

According to the latest research, there is sufficient brownfield land to deliver at least a million homes in England alone. This raises several questions. Firstly, given that projections suggest 220,000 new households will be formed every year until 2022, will this be enough?

Secondly, is this land in the right place and developable for the right price?  Local authority planning officers maintain that developers have no interest in existing brownfield sites, claiming they’re unviable and undeliverable. 

Which leads to me to my overarching question – can we solve the UK ‘housing crisis’ by focusing on brownfield land alone?  My view is no. So however sensitive the topic may be, we have to accept that green belt holds some of the answers.

So what of the mechanism that allows councils to review their green belts? Through a series of commissions by local authorities, Arup has continually refined the process of green belt review, developing a robust but flexible approach which balances the requirements of national planning policy, the five purposes which green belt should serve, against local context. We have found that the devil is often in the detail, yet national policy and guidance provides little more than the bare bones.  

Even worse, the bones themselves may be fractured. Are the five purposes the most relevant and appropriate concepts for defining green belt in the 21st century, or have our urban areas evolved to such an extent that we need to think again? 

Green belt is a strategic policy and while most councils seek input from stakeholders, usually this doesn’t go far enough and often overlooks impacts beyond their boundaries. Another area where understanding is limited is the intrinsic link between the supply of green belt and the deliverability of brownfield land.  

Perhaps a strategic, pan-regional body is needed to assess the role of green belts and their negative impacts?

And what about beyond the UK?  Green belt is a unique concept, so how have other planning systems coped with urban sprawl, and are there any lessons to be learned?

What is clear is that the UK Government cannot simply bury the issue. The current framework emphasises setting local targets for housing delivery. While this remains the case, local authorities will question how they can deliver their visions and ensure that the green belt remains sacrosanct, particularly if they have no suitable brownfield sites to put forward.