Undoing the Green Belt

Two children lying on their backs in long grass laughing

The Green Belt was created in 1955 to prevent urban sprawl and be the 'countryside next door' for millions - Credit: Getty Images

A disconnect between central and local government is leading to the removal of precious Green Belt, in a move that does little to address the housing crisis, writes Liz Hamilton of CPRE: the countryside charity. 

During lockdowns we saw a huge surge in appreciation for our countryside and local green spaces, and increased awareness of their value for our health and wellbeing. Such spaces are vitally important especially for the one in eight households with no garden. A poll, carried out jointly by Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the Women’s Institute during the first lockdown, found that nearly two-thirds of people felt that protecting these places should be a higher priority for the government.  

The Green Belt is the countryside next door for 30 million people in England’s towns and cities. In 1955 the government announced that Green Belts would be promoted nationwide to prevent further unrestricted sprawl of cities 'for the wellbeing of our people and for the preservation of the countryside'.

For the previous 25 years CPRE was at the forefront of the campaign for Green Belts. By the end of the 1960s Green Belts had been designated around many of England's major cities, to safeguard open countryside between built-up areas, check sprawl, stop urban areas coalescing, and retain the setting and character of historic towns.   

Family On Walk In Countryside, Walking Towards Camera And Smiling

More than half of Hertfordshire is Green Belt for London - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

More than half of Hertfordshire is part of London's Green Belt, allowing open countryside to survive even in the south of the county, where without protection much would almost certainly now be developed. Instead, towns and villages retain their separate identities, albeit sometimes by barely the width of a field. Critics say the Green Belt is a litter-strewn wasteland; others have complained that the Green Belt is too intensively farmed to allow much wildlife to survive.  A third line of attack is that Green Belts offer little public access and so benefit few people.  

Back in 2015 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Green Belt, I wrote in this magazine about a visit to my childhood ‘countryside next door’. Around the Hertfordshire home of my youth I found public paths to explore, productive agricultural land, ample wildlife habitats, birdsong, and the sight and sound of water. I noted the clear distinction between countryside and town which is characteristic of the Green Belt. I saw only a little litter, mostly in one place by a roadside.

I concluded: ‘This is not spectacular landscape but it does feel like proper countryside; above all it is accessible, not just to local people but to others who can travel out from London, perhaps by train. In the 19th century Octavia Hill, who later was a founder of the National Trust, used to take children out from London into Epping Forest to breathe fresh air and enjoy the green and peaceful place. Today our need for fresh air and exercise in green places is as important as ever’. 

Green Belt is supposed to be protected by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the main central government policy document for planning. It states that Local Plans should provide for ‘objectively assessed’ housing need, ‘unless the application of policies in this Framework that protect areas or assets of particular importance provides a strong reason for restricting the overall scale, type or distribution of development in the plan area’. 

Field on the edge of Tring taken out of agricultural use for housing

This field on the edge of Tring was formerly Green Belt, taken out of productive agricultural use after being allocated for housing - Credit: Liz Hamilton

It goes on to identify such protected areas, including Green Belt, Special Areas of Conservation, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Local Green Space, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks and similar designations.   

In December the government strengthened its guidance in a statement on its response to a recent public consultation on proposed changes to the planning system. It said: ‘we heard suggestions in the consultation that in some places the numbers produced by the ‘standard method’ (the term used for the process of assessing housing need) pose a risk to protected landscapes and Green Belt.  

We should be clear that meeting housing need is never a reason to cause unacceptable harm to such places. But harm or homes is not a binary choice. We can plan for well designed, beautiful homes, with access to the right infrastructure in the places where people need and want to live while also protecting the environment and green spaces communities most value’.   

Housing construction site on former farmland near Tring

The same Tring field under development - Credit: Liz Hamilton

At the same time Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, said: ‘the standard method does not present a ‘target’ in plan-making, but instead provides a starting point for determining the level of need for housing in an area. It is only after consideration of this, alongside what constraints areas face, such as the Green Belt, and the land that is actually available for development, that the decision on how many homes should be planned for is made’.  In short, the protection of the countryside is more important than meeting pre-determined housing targets. 

So the findings of CPRE’s report, Countryside next door: State of the Green Belt 2021, published in February, come as a shock. Nearly 260,000 houses are proposed to be built on greenfield land due to be removed from the Green Belt in Local Plans being prepared or already adopted by councils throughout England. This represents a staggering 475 per cent increase since 2013.   

In Hertfordshire the situation is even more concerning. A review by CPRE Hertfordshire last November found that 55,473 new homes are proposed on land currently in the Green Belt. This is more than 20 per cent of the national figure revealed in the Countryside next door report. In addition, over 17,500 homes have been approved or are already being built on land recently removed from the Green Belt, as part of the local plan process in three of Hertfordshire’s local authority areas.

The total of over 73,000 new homes is equivalent to the combined populations of the county’s third and fourth largest towns, Stevenage and St Albans, sprawled across our green fields and hillsides. Most of these homes would become heavily dependent on using cars, being too far from shops, schools and public transport hubs to rely on more active travel. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that there is a growing disconnect between government policy and the application of that policy at local level. And it’s not just the numbers. Countryside next door also reveals that land removed from the Green Belt by approved applications and in Local Plans is not even getting close to solving the housing crisis. In England, of 17,698 homes completed on such land between 2015/16 and 2019/20 only just over 10 per cent (1,786) were affordable, despite local planning authority requirements for affordable provision averaging 34 per cent in the areas studied. 

We should be able to find a way of building homes that are genuinely affordable without having to accept nine houses that are unaffordable for every affordable one. We have enough previously used (brownfield) land in England, according to CPRE research, to build more than a million homes. The Countryside next door report also reveals that the average density of developments on former Green Belt land was much lower than on other sites:14 dwellings per hectare, compared with 31 on other sites. This, as the report says, represents a squandering of precious land. 

Green Belt and all countryside and green spaces have a crucial role to play in mitigating the climate crisis and enhancing biodiversity. Plants, including trees and hedgerows, capture and store carbon, as does carefully managed soil. Much of Hertfordshire’s Green Belt is productively farmed, providing vital food. We should be enhancing these capabilities, not proposing to cover huge areas of this land in bricks, concrete and tarmac. Let’s stand together now to protect Hertfordshire’s Green Belt. 

To join CPRE Hertfordshire and be part of the movement to protect our countryside and green open spaces, visit cpreherts.org.uk