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COMMENT 23


RELEASING THE GREEN BELT


Ian Graves of Shakespeare Martineau explains why he believes green belt release shouldn’t be off-limits


Ian Graves is a legal director in the planning team at law firm Shakespeare Martineau


here is a housing crisis in the UK. For years, supply has failed to keep up with demand, pushing up prices to unsustainable levels and frustrating the ambitions of millions of would-be homeowners. There aren’t enough homes being built, and they’re being built in the wrong places. So why are large swathes of land in some of the country’s most sustainable locations off-limits for development? Done right, the strategic release of green belt land for housing development could go a long way towards solving the problem. Firstly, there are two myths which need to be dealt with. Many wrongly equate the green belt with open countryside. The reality in many cases couldn’t be further from the truth, as much green belt land is of limited environmental value. The quality of the land in environmental terms is actually irrelevant to green belt designation: by definition, the only criterion for inclusion in a Green Belt is proximity to an urban area.


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THERE IS A WIDESPREAD, ALTHOUGH MISTAKEN, BELIEF THAT THE UK IS A SMALL, CROWDED ISLAND


There is also a widespread, but mistaken, belief that the UK is a small, crowded island. In fact, according to the Department of Communities and Local Government, just 9 per cent of land in England is developed, whereas more than a third has a restrictive designation such as green belt, national park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Nor is development in the UK particularly intensive by European standards. Evidence consistently shows that the general public significantly overestimates how much land is built on, probably because the population is concentrated mainly in a few areas of the country. Ironically, the policy priority given to brownfield development within urban areas probably increases this perception.


Green belt designations are a major constraint on development, restricting the supply of housing and increasing its cost. That high cost disproportionately affects lower and middle


income groups, and the young. Green belts also encourage the ‘leap-frogging’ of development further away from urban areas, leading to longer commutes and greater environmental impacts. Building at high density on brownfield land means that many of the homes that are built are smaller than buyers desire. All of this results in expensive homes, of the wrong type, in the wrong places.


These are real costs that should be weighed against the benefits of preserving the green belt, and often the public is unaware of the hidden trade-off that is being made. The benefits of the green belt are felt mainly by those who own homes in or near them. Unsurprisingly, they are usually its staunchest defenders, and their views hold great sway politically. The voices of those who don’t yet own a home, or live in a smaller home than they need, or that’s in the wrong place, aren’t being heard. Planning policy needs to cater for the needs of everyone, not just existing homeowners.


Even limited development of the green belt could put a large dent in the housing shortfall. Green belt locations are generally sustainable, being on the edges of large urban areas. In London alone, one study showed that almost a million homes could be built on green belt land within 10 minutes walk of a train station. There are real opportunities to build large numbers of homes in the places people want to live, without harming the environment. So, it’s time to re-think the green belt. To be


clear, this does not mean allowing unrestricted development or concreting over the countryside. What is does mean is moving away from mechanistic policy designations and giving real thought to what should be protected and why. The targeted release of green belt land in the most sustainable locations could help solve the housing crisis, while bringing overall environmental benefits. That, however, will require real political courage, something that’s been in very short supply over recent years.


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