Land News

Tightening the green belt

Prospect, 1st February, 2007

The green belt is planning’s gold standard. It places a green ring around our major cities, holding back sprawl and protecting the countryside. Over the past 60 years it has achieved totemic status, like the NHS or A-Levels. It is beloved of environmentalists and middle England alike.

In December, the government made these people very anxious when it published the economist Kate Barker’s review of land use planning. In a previous review, Barker had recommended Britain build an extra 140,000 houses a year. Now she was arguing for the government to rethink the whole green belt approach, encouraging cities to build out into the countryside.

Most reactions to the review were hostile. Journalists, pressure groups and former ministers lined up to denounce it as "armageddon," "devastating" and "complete lunacy." But is this really the end of the world as we know it? What are the real implications for planners and the public?

Land use planning is one of the least exciting areas of urban policy—we think of planners sitting in dusty offices, sorting out disputes about hedges. But while planning can be dull, it is critically important. It is one of government’s principal tools for balancing economic, social and environmental goals. And because people generally resist development, planning must also weigh protection against progress.

Green belts are our best-known planning tool. First used in 1944, there are now 14 green belts, covering around 13 per cent of England (Wales and Scotland have their own policies). The biggest surround greater London and big cities like Manchester and Birmingham.

The policy has had many successes. British cities lack the sprawling patterns of American "exurbs." By encouraging people and businesses to cluster together, green belts have arguably helped urban economies to grow. Tellingly, they are widely copied—even in the US, where "wild west" planning regimes are now very rare.

Barker recognises the achievements of green belt policy. However, she points out that England now protects twice as much land as the OECD average. Around 13 per cent of the country is designated as "developed." But besides the green belt, another 31 per cent is classified under the protected categories of areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks or similar.

Britain needs more developed land. The population is growing, as is the proportion of single-person households. Richard Rogers’s model of high-density urban development only takes us so far. The vast majority of Britons want to live in houses with gardens, and this quickly uses up our stock of brownfield land. Against this backdrop, Barker argues, it is essential to revisit existing green belts, and to allow cities to build out into the countryside.

Barker’s supporters make three main points. First, public support for the green belt is based on misunderstandings. In an Ipsos/Mori poll, 60 per cent of respondents believed green belts protected wildlife, and 46 per cent thought they preserved areas of natural beauty. But neither has anything to do with the green belt. Importantly, only 17 per cent thought that land "on the edge of cities" was the most important to preserve against development.

Second, not building on the green belt may be counterproductive. In fast-growing cities like Oxford and Cambridge, development has increasingly leapfrogged into the countryside proper. The result is more commuting, congestion and pollution.

Third, constraining land supply raises its cost. Analysis by Paul Cheshire and Christian Hilber (commissioned by Barker) suggests Britain pays a substantial "regulatory tax" on office space: rents in central Manchester are an astonishing 40 per cent higher than central Manhattan.

Green belts are valuable. But we cannot preserve them forever. Housing shortages, particularly in the southeast, have put nearly 1.5m people on waiting lists. The government’s Growth Areas programme will help alleviate these problems—but analysis by the IPPR suggests a further 200,000 homes will be needed by 2016.

Similarly, Britain’s cities need room to grow. Since the mid-1990s, big British cities have been in recovery mode, with population, employment and output improving. Northern city leaders want to tempt working families into the inner "city edge," while providing space for economic growth. Brownfield land must come first, but if necessary, cities should be able to push into the green belt. The approach needs to vary from place to place.

In practice, some green belt land is already built on. Local and regional planners have occasionally reviewed green belt boundaries, and over the past 20 years, universities, business parks and housing estates have eaten away at it. This spring’s planning white paper should push on with this process.

But this will not be easy. The treasury is more enthusiastic than Ruth Kelly, the communities secretary, who recently cast doubt on the need for "substantial policy changes." Surprisingly, the Conservative leadership also wants a green belt rethink. But most backbenchers will hate it. And both opposition parties will probably oppose other government proposals, notably the proposed independent planning commission (which will rule on future airport expansions and nuclear power stations).

The main challenge is implementation. To avoid sprawl, local planners need to think strategically about green belt development—but many local authority teams lack the resources to do this, especially in smaller cities and towns. As things stand, there is a real risk that planners will get out-manoeuvred by private sector interests. The white paper must also provide means to build up local capacity before changing the rules. And it should set very clear guidance.

Green belt reform need not be the end of the world. But delivering it the wrong way could do far more harm than good.

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