Is green belt reform necessary to address the housing crisis?

Jack Lever, Graduate Planner at Carter Jonas, looks at the growing argument for the review and adaptation of Green Belt policy.

Related topics:  Planning,  Housing,  Green belt
Jack Lever | Carter Jonas
22nd February 2024
green belt
"Both primary and secondary research demonstrates that the Green Belt is a significant barrier to housing delivery. And while the current Government has proposed various reforms, very few have been implemented through policy"
- Jack Lever - Carter Jonas

Whether as a ring of verdant greenfield land protecting English cities and towns from urban sprawl, or outdated, protectionist legislation which perpetuates ever-increasing house prices, the Green Belt is rarely out of the news.

With the two main political parties diametrically opposed on the issue, the Green Belt is likely to remain in the headlines in the run-up to the next general election.

This is of particular interest to me as I researched attitudes towards the Green Belt and its potential for reform as my dissertation topic when completing an MA Town & Regional Planning last year.

Today, the Green Belt surrounds 15 urban areas, covering 16,383 km2 - 12.6% of England’s land area. Its purpose and the importance that the Government attaches to it is communicated through the NPPF, which also states that development on Green Belt should be considered in “very special circumstances” and that local planning authorities should maximise the use of brownfield sites first.

Both primary and secondary research demonstrates that the Green Belt is a significant barrier to housing delivery. And while the current Government has proposed various reforms, very few have been implemented through policy. This has led to confusion and uncertainty, with developments and local plans stalled as a result.

Case study: examining York’s unique position

Despite its importance and longevity, however, the Green Belt continues to be under scrutiny, most notably in relation to housing supply. As a case study, I looked specifically at the City of York Council, a ‘Green Belt authority’ which is in the unique position of not having had a local plan in place for almost 70 years.

However, the severity of the housing crisis has led York to begin the process of adopting a new local plan, which proposes a revision to the Green Belt boundaries to enable the development of approximately 7000 homes.

My research sought the views of housebuilders, planning consultants, planning officers and policy planners who live and work in York and the surrounding area.

The feedback confirmed that the root cause of the housing crisis (especially the crisis in affordable housing) is the continual and ongoing undersupply of new housing: the result of Government policy, local planning policy and process, land supply, valuation and housing market structure.

Consistent with an understanding that these factors are complex, dynamic, interdependent and subject to change, there was a broad consensus that no single solution can be implemented to address the scale of the housing crisis.

Respondents agreed there must be significant market, structural, and policy reform to address a range of housing supply barriers and solutions, including a continued focus on the development of brownfield sites. Importantly, it emphasised the need for an objective assessment of both the viability and suitability of brownfield sites, in particular, in terms of transport and infrastructure provision.

Impact of Green Belt policy

The research confirmed that Green Belt policy has been very successful in its primary objective of preventing sprawl in large urban areas. A measure of its success is that it is unique as a spatial planning policy in that it has remained largely unchanged since its inception. Respondents felt that its success and longevity are due to public support for maintaining large areas of open countryside.

This substantiated my belief that the debate around housing supply and Green Belt is not limited to an objective numerical discourse around housing needs: other factors to be taken into consideration include political, social, economic and environmental factors.

The case study demonstrated that the Green Belt has not only restricted the number of new homes but has had wider implications on location. Local authorities have had to create new “leapfrog” settlements outside the outer ring of Green Belt. The result is that settlements are not supported by established transport or infrastructure and that commuting times to urban hubs increase, contributing to climate emissions and potentially to poor integration of communities.

Strategic planning challenges

The study of York demonstrates how an impasse between significant housing needs and limited available land, in part due to the Green Belt, has contributed to a failure in strategic planning. However, the emerging Local Plan has resulted in the City planners objectively assessing and adapting Green Belt boundaries against defined priorities, the success of which could form a blueprint for how Green Belt boundaries could be adapted to support the wider release of Green Belt land.

It is remarkable, in an ever-changing social, economic, political and environmental context, that the spatial policy of the Green Belt has hardly changed in 70 years. However, its privileged status of being too valued to be amended is being surpassed by the depth and scope of the housing crisis and the new social and environmental priorities of the 21st century.

There is now a compelling case for the review and adaptation of Green Belt policy. That said, any change must appreciate its popularity and follow a path of gradual adaption, rather than radical reform, focusing on freeing up low-value and priority land to support housing supply.

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