The future of the green belt

CLA Planning Adviser Shannon Fuller explores the green belt planning policy, why it exists, what a review of it could mean and what its future could look like following a general election
Rural St Albans green belt

In April, the Labour Party announced plans for the green belt. If Labour wins the next general election, Sir Kier Starmer has already promised to review planning regulations and build 1.5m homes over five years. As part of this pledge, the party has said it will review the rules on green belt restriction to enable more homes to be built. There has been talk of utilising disused land in the green belt, with the term ‘grey belt’ being used.

The plans announced on 19 April expanded on this ‘grey belt’ proposition, which will require local authorities to prioritise building on brownfield sites and poorer quality areas within the green belt.

While the green belt prevents various forms of development and can hinder the sustainable growth of rural businesses, it plays a role in protecting green space and providing opportunities, such as enabling the public to access the countryside.

With a general election on the horizon, the CLA is updating its position on the green belt. We are keen to hear from members on how the green belt impacts them and their businesses and what its future could look like.

Why does the green belt exist?

The green belt forms a key part of England’s planning system. It was first introduced as the Metropolitan Green Belt surrounding London in 1935 and was then expanded in 1947 following the introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act, which paved the way for other local authorities to develop their own designations around other cities and towns.

There are 14 green belts in England, covering 1.6m hectares and one green belt in Wales. It is designed to restrict urban sprawl into the surrounding countryside by permanently keeping land open and preventing the joining up of cities and towns.

A common misconception about the green belt is that it is an environmental designation; it is not. When introduced 76 years ago, it aimed to address the challenges posed by increasingly rapid urbanisation. These days, the green belt is not an expanse of greenfield land as assumed by many.

The green belt is not a statutory designation and is therefore not bound by law as is the case for a National Park or National Landscape. Green belts are designated as part of the local plan process when policies are set for a local authority's area.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out the purpose of the green belt and stresses that development within it should be avoided unless there are exceptional circumstances.

How do green belt boundaries change?

Green belt boundaries can be altered by local authorities when they are preparing an updated or new local plan, but there is no requirement for them to alter them when doing so.

Typically, land is taken from the inner edge of the green belt for development and is replaced with additional land on the outer edge. In some cases, land is swapped out of the green belt for development but replaced with areas of open countryside larger than that removed.

Land that may once have been outside the green belt can ultimately fall within it when a new local plan is prepared.

It is concerning that a policy created to prevent urban sprawl can be amended to enable urban extensions but, in the meantime, prevents the development of vital services, facilities or housing for rural communities.

How could changes to green belt policy benefit CLA members?

Some form of planning policy to prevent urban sprawl in the countryside is undoubtedly necessary, but this must not come at the cost of preventing sustainable growth and the expansion of rural businesses. Those businesses within the green belt cannot be expected to rely upon limited permitted development rights and exception policies to grow and diversify. The policy needs to be fit for purpose for both urban and rural areas.

Labour’s reference to the ‘grey belt’ emphasises the need to develop brownfield sites within the green belt but fails to acknowledge the need for small-scale development in rural areas. Members tell us that farm diversification projects and small village extensions are currently unachievable. Any new green belt policy needs to acknowledge the contribution these types of development can make to a local area and economy.

As we review the CLA’s position on the green belt, there are various options to consider. Do we want to see an overhaul of the purpose of the green belt that could result in a greater emphasis on protecting nature and the environment, which will likely further hinder development? Perhaps we need more flexibility on the exceptions for development in the green belt so that farm diversification and development suitable for the rural economy are encouraged.

One option could be to enable development that is well-related and of an appropriate size to a settlement through the introduction of village boundaries within the green belt. Currently, smaller settlements within the green belt are entirely designated (unlike the larger towns and cities). This results in development being pushed to the towns and villages located outside the designation, where proposals are more likely to be granted planning permission. This results in an over-reliance on car travel to employment hubs located within the green belt, which impacts traffic and contributes to air pollution and climate change.

We must also make the government aware that the green belt can contribute to solving the housing crisis and also offer opportunities for improved recreational resources for residents of nearby towns and cities.

While we develop our position on the green belt in anticipation of a potential change in government, please get in touch with Shannon Fuller to ensure your opinions inform our work.

Key contact:

Shannon Headshot
Shannon Fuller Planning Adviser, London