A prevailing dispute in British politics rears its weary head again: should we build on the green belt? This recurrent question dates back more than fifty years, but amid today’s housing and homelessness crises, it might seem more relevant now than ever before. This much is clear: we need more housing. Attached to this comes a familiar refrain: “Why don’t we just build houses on all that unused land just lying out there?” Then the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the other usual suspects rise up to defend the land.
CPRE boss Crispin Truman last year felt compelled to author an article on the Huffington Post arguing against responding to the housing crisis by building on the green belt and “losing the countryside”. Much of the debate suffers from popular misconceptions about both the green belt, and about land in this country more broadly, and so an attempt is made here to provide a little clarity to this matter.
Land in Britain
The claim is oft made that 92% of the UK has not been built on. Let us look a little closer at this 92%. A 2017 report from the University of Sheffield tells us that less than 6% of the UK land surface is urban. 24% of the land consists of woodlands and other natural land, like moors and beaches. 56% of the UK’s land is used for farming (pastures take up 29%, non-irrigated arable land 27%). Wetlands cover 11% of the UK, 9.4% of which alone are peatlands, the continued existence of these being environmentally essential, though as much as 80% of the UK’s peatland is now in poor condition. It is clear that, while roughly accurate, this statistic is not particularly helpful: the overwhelming majority of the 92% is plainly well-occupied and of little relevance to the matter of building more housing.
The Green Belt
The green belt is similarly often misunderstood. The green belt only covers 13% of the land in England, and some cities have no green belt at all, which is not to say they do not have green, open, and natural land around them. According to a 2017 release from the Department for Communities and Local Government, “the fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.” You will note no mention of wildlife sanctuaries or nature reserves. Indeed, most of the green belt is not green, and much of it is nothing but wasteland that is kept strategically clear from development simply to prevent urban sprawl.
Should we build on it?
One further argument for the green belt is that, by restricting growth of cities and towns, it encourages further development and redevelopment within urban areas, rather than leaving areas within cities to rot unoccupied. However, the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) – historically a strong advocate for the green belt – has argued that the green belt policy alone does not promote urban regeneration or encourage the recycling of urban land. The TCPA has further argued for a return to the post-war policy of not just maintaining the green belt but building new towns too.
Building on previously-developed brownfield land remains an option, but much of the available brownfield land lies outside of the area of highest housing demand – London and the south east – and in areas that typify English industrial decline. The CPRE – which of course fully opposes building on the green belt – advocates a “brownfield first” policy for building new housing. This is yet more confusing, as some of the green belt actually is brownfield land. John Elledge – who calls the CPRE “a body whose raison d’etre is to protect the interests of elderly homeowners and fields” – argues that suggestions that we build new housing on brownfield land is largely a distraction when that category includes such undesirable options as breeding sites for nightingales, contaminated industrial sites, and areas with none of the necessary infrastructure or jobs.
For cities like London and Oxford – the two most expensive cities to live in in Britain – it is difficult to see any way forwards that won’t involve building on the green belt. And it is broadly the case that the least affordable cities and towns to live in tend to be those with a green belt policy. According to a 2015 report from the Adam Smith Institute, 1 million new homes could be built just by using 1.5% of the green belt. Or by using 4% of London’s green belt alone. The green belt is important both in terms of town and country planning and in terms of environmental protection – essential not just for conservation but amid climate change and pollution in our cities – but is not by itself enough to meet these mighty challenges, and much of the land and wildlife that most needs protecting is beyond the green belt. And, despite what the CPRE may say, it does no disservice to England’s green and pleasant land for people to live on it.