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Green Belts, Geography and Governance: Thinking strategically about the Green Belt

By Charles Goode

The RTPI aims to promote a wide variety of views in its blog section. The views expressed by authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the RTPI.

‘If things go wrong tonight, I am shortly to be a resident of a suburb of Oxford!’ Extract from a resident’s speech to South Oxfordshire District Council appealing to it not to adopt the Local Plan  (Available online at:  

The importance of ‘larger-than-local’ or strategic planning keeps reoccurring as a vitally important theme with issues associated with the Duty to Cooperate leading to numerous local plans running into difficulty at Examination, including Wealden, Tonbridge and Malling, Sevenoaks, and St Albans.

This, together with the demise of the West of England Joint Spatial Plan and Greater Exeter Strategic Plan and difficulties with the London Plan and Greater Manchester Strategic Framework, demonstrates how challenging strategic planning is, especially when related to housing numbers.

Indeed, many of the plans mentioned are also in areas covered by the Green Belt and, as the quote above shows, the localism agenda has arguably fuelled parochialism among everyday campaigners.

However, this article considers more positively how the Green Belt can be managed in a more strategic way. Indeed, the policy remains as an inherently regional growth management policy whilst my research has found that the broader need for strategic planning remains very clear given the strategic nature of things like flooding, housing, and transport.

Moreover, the concept of the ‘region’ and ‘strategic’, as associated with the founders of planning, like Sirs Patrick Geddes and Abercrombie, lives on in the strategic training and vision of planners and professional campaigners (who are often retired planners). Indeed, if the Green Belt can be conceptualised as a regionalising, co-ordinating concept, as Quintin Bradley (2019a, 2019b) and I (2019) have argued, this forms the basis of developing consensus around the need to rebuild strategic planning.

Arguably, reviewing the Green Belt over a broader spatial area than one’s LPA as currently, ideally the whole Green Belt, and for a longer timeframe, like the Abercrombie Greater London Plans (1943, 1944) or South East Study (1964), would arguably give more certainty to both house builders and campaigners. Indeed, such a review could take place as part of a strategic regional/sub-regional plan which explores broader trends surrounding transport infrastructure, economic growth, and housing development, evaluates the various spatial blueprints for growth, like urban densification, new towns, and urban extensions, and allocates broad areas of growth and restraint.

In my research, I develop the ideal of a Green Belt ‘Council’, formed of planning experts and local politicians, to review the whole Green Belt for a longer-term timeframe, perhaps 15-20 years.

But, there are two poignant challenges regarding this associated with territoriality and governance. Stemming back to the threat of encroachment by the ‘industrial’ cities through suburban ‘sprawl’, the counties often take a defensive approach to defending ‘their’ Green Belt. Additionally, there is arguably a tension between the need to plan strategically, both in a temporal and geographical sense, and democratic accountability, especially given the short timeframe of electoral cycles and lack of political representation between the national and local level at a regional level.

Arguably, if Structure Planning is revived through local government reorganisation towards unitary counties in the Devolution White Paper, this would allow a more strategic approach than the current locally-led system although it could revive some of the territorial issues mentioned above. Likewise, if planning powers were granted to all Combined Authorities, this would also be a positive step towards rebuilding strategic planning. Although Combined Authorities are often not contiguous with Green Belt boundaries, there is a lack of political appetite for strategic planning in certain areas, like the West Midlands, and even Combined Authorities with planning powers, like Greater Manchester, have still experienced very challenging political issues with the Green Belt. This well illustrates why Wannop and Cherry (1994, p. 52), in documenting post-war regional planning in Britain, called the feasibility and longevity of strategic planning a ‘deep question’.

The pressing need for strategic planning for strategic issues remains, especially housing with deepening housing inequality laid bare by Coronavirus and the lockdown (Goode, 2020). Indeed, the political backlash in places like South Oxfordshire, Guildford and Tandridge against the frequent releases of land from the Green Belt, which characterise the era of localism, may finally convince the government of the necessity and desirability of strategic planning.

Charles Goode

Charles Goode is an ESRC-funded Doctoral Researcher in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the relationship between the Green Belt and the housing crisis and he has published on the governance of the Green Belt ( as well as the implications of Coronavirus on planning ('.

To see relevant RTPI content on the Green Belt please click here

For more on the Duty to Cooperate, please see the RTPI's response to the Planning for the Future white paper response here.


Bradley, Q. (2019a) ‘Combined Authorities and material participation: The capacity of Green Belt to engage political publics in England’, Local Economy, 34(2), pp. 181–195.

Bradley, Q. (2019b) ‘Public support for Green Belt: common rights in countryside access and recreation’, Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 21(6), pp. 692–701.

Goode, C. E. (2019) ‘Green Belts, Geography and Governance: Towards a Spatial “Solution” for a 21st Century Green Belt?’, European Council of Spatial Planners, pp. 31–56. Available at:

Goode, C. E. (2020) ‘Viewpoint Pandemics and planning : immediate-, medium- and long (er) -term implications of the current coronavirus crisis on planning in Britain’, Town Planning Review, pp. 1–7.

Wannop, U. and Cherry, G. E. (1994) ‘The development of regional planning in the United Kingdom’, Planning Perspectives, 9(1), pp. 29–60.


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