What is green belt land and why does it exist?
Green Belt policy has been part of the planning system for some 74 years. The essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and permanence. The purpose of introducing Green Belts around towns and cities is to counter urban sprawl, coalescence of towns and villages and retain the openness of such areas. As a result, Green Belt planning policy is very restrictive; development deemed to be “inappropriate” is considered to be harmful and is resisted.
The policy for Green Belt land is arguably the most widely recognised planning tool known by the general public. However, the actual purpose of the Green Belt is widely misunderstood. The quality of landscape is not relevant to the inclusion of land within Green Belt or its continued protection. Rather than being a tool to protect countryside, Green Belt is a strategic planning policy tool to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open.
It's important not to confuse Green Belt planning policy with ‘green fields’. The former is a planning policy that provides for a buffer around certain towns and cities. The latter relates to land that is undeveloped no matter where it is located.
Government policy on green belt development
There are 14 Green Belt areas in England, and one around Cardiff in Wales with two more areas proposed in Wales. National planning policy for Green Belt can be found in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in England and in Planning Policy Wales (PPW).
Purposes - There are five purposes of including land in Green Belts, and these are:
- To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas
- To prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another
- To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment
- To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns
- To assist in urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl and coalescence by keeping land open and the five purposes of Green Belt stem directly from that fundamental aim and are all important for existing green belts. Although the five purposes include reference to, for example, “safeguarding the countryside” it is to protect it from “encroachment”, no other threat being implied. Similarly “preserving the setting and special character of historic towns” and “assist in regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land” are set in the same context i.e. protection from urban sprawl, prevention of settlements coalescing.
Once Green Belt has been defined, the use of land within them has a positive role to play in fulfilling the following objectives:
- To provide opportunities for access to open countryside for urban populations
- To provide opportunities for outdoor sport and outdoor recreation near urban areas
- To retain attractive landscapes and enhance landscapes near to where people live
- To improve damaged and derelict land around towns and cities
- To secure nature conservation interest
- To retain land in agricultural, forestry and related uses.
Can I build on green belt land?
Only a small number of development are classed as appropriate, in principle, in Green Belt.
New buildings for the following uses are considered “appropriate”:
- Agriculture and forestry
- Essential facilities for outdoor sport and outdoor recreation, for cemeteries and for other uses of land which preserve the openness of Green Belt and which do not conflict with the purposes of including land in it
- Limited extension, alteration or replacement of existing dwellings
- Limited infilling in existing villages and limited affordable housing for local community needs under development plan policies or
- Limited infilling or redevelopment of previously developed sites whether redundant or in continuing use (excluding temporary buildings), which would:
‒ not have a greater impact on the openness of the Green Belt than the existing development; or
‒ not cause substantial harm to the openness of the Green Belt, where the development would re-use previously developed land and contribute to meeting an identified affordable housing need within the area of the local planning authority.
Certain other forms of development are also not inappropriate in the Green Belt provided they preserve its openness and do not conflict with the purposes of including land within it. These are:
- mineral extraction;
- engineering operations;
- local transport infrastructure which can demonstrate a requirement for a Green Belt location; the re-use of buildings provided that the buildings are of permanent and substantial construction;
- material changes in the use of land (such as changes of use for outdoor sport or recreation, or for cemeteries and burial grounds); and
- development, including buildings, brought forward under a Community Right to Build Order or Neighbourhood Development Order.
Turning now to a couple of important matters that will have an affect on development proposals in Green Belt, namely ‘openness’ and ‘very special circumstances’.
There is no definition in national planning policy on what constitutes “openness” and it’s matter that has been the subject of many legal decision. As Sales L.J. observed in a 2020 decision “[the] word “openness” is open-textured and a number of factors are capable of being relevant when it comes to applying it to the particular facts of a specific case”. The relevant openness is the openness of the Green Belt rather than the site as such. What is clear from national planning policy is that “openness” is predominantly a spatial designation, and not a landscape designation.
Very special circumstances
The government is clear that planning authorities should regard the construction of new buildings as inappropriate in the Green Belt, with a few specific exceptions (set out above). Beyond that, it states, in national planning policy that “inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances. In England the NPPF explains in paragraph 148 what that means in practice: “When considering any planning application, local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given to any harm to the green belt. ‘Very special circumstances’ will not exist unless the potential harm to the green belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm resulting from the proposal, is clearly outweighed by other considerations”. Trying to define very special circumstances will vary from site to site as there is no one list that constitutes ‘very special circumstances’. Determining whether very special circumstances exist depends on evaluating the balance between planning factors. It falls to the determining authority to decide what the very special circumstances are in a particular case and to consider if they outweigh the harm to the Green Belt. This means that applicants who wish to develop in the Green Belt must identify factors that are specific to their development proposal when seeking to argue that very special circumstances apply in their case. One of the ways of looking at the specific factors is by reference to the objectives for sustainable development set out in paragraph 8 in the NPPF: economic, social, environmental benefits. It’s possible that a series of circumstances which in themselves might not be very special, but might amount to very special circumstances in combination with each other.
Permitted development in Green Belt
Permitted development rights are governed by the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (as amended) in England, and in Wales in by the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) 1995 (as amended) (GPDO).
Unless permitted development rights are specifically excluded (either by a planning condition, an Article 4 Direction, or a specific exclusion in a Part/Class of the GPDO) from use in the Green Belt, then development can take place using available permitted development rights that are set out in the relevant GPDO. In some instances the planning authority’s prior approval may be required before development can commence. All development that takes place using permitted development rights must be fully compliant with the relevant conditions, limitations and exclusions if it is to avoid planning enforcement action.