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Debating the Green Belt

22 May 2015

Joe Kilroy

On Tuesday 12th May RTPI Policy and Research hosted a green belt debate in Oxford Brookes University. The green belt is likely to feature as a key issue for the new government, and the RTPI is keen to ensure that going forward the debate is mindful of the social, economic and environmental consequences of green belt development.

The event brought together a number of leading thinkers with diverse views on the subject of green belt development. The debate was nationally focused, discussing the concept of the green belt in general rather than focusing on any particular area, and the question the speakers were asked to address was ‘Does the new government need to act on the green belt?’

Professor Tim Marshall, opened by highlighting that the green belt does indeed need to be thought about in a national context, but also a regional and local context. The lack of nationally agreed values stifles the debate as does the lack of a wider national, strategic context. For example, the current cities agenda does not grasp the importance of the proper play between existing cities and new urban areas, and this is crucial to the green belt issue.

He argued that discussing the green belt in general terms is problematic because every green belt is in a different context and is responding to different dynamics. Furthermore, whether changing the green belt will help society depends on land, housing, transport, food and other policy spheres; it can not be treated in isolation.

For Marshall the question of public access to the green belt must be put on the agenda and we should widen the use of green belt to include country parks. To do so the work of the 2010 Land Use Futures Foresight report should be built on, and in that context Marshall suggested the creation of a national commission. All city regions need to consider their land options, and need to have binding strategic planning policies. Whatever happens, he stated, we need to give due regard to the fact that land is tied up with other policy areas and that just changing green belts on their own is a recipe for an even bigger mess than we're in now.

Matt Thomson set the current policy context by pointing out that the permanence and openness of green belts is essential according to the National Planning Policy Framework. There are many purposes served by the green belt and it’s important to remember that these include preventing sprawl, preventing towns merging, and assisting urban regeneration.

One of the problems with releasing any greenfield land, according to Thomson, is that it is cheaper to develop and so acts antagonistically to a ‘brownfield first’ agenda. While he recognised that some green belt development is necessary, he was keen to emphasise that there is no national imperative to release land from the greenbelt to meet housing need.

Thomson referred to CPRE research which shows pressure on the green belt is huge for housing, and pointed out that statistics on the amount of development in the green belt can be misleading. Generally speaking there is not enough centrally held mapped data on land in England, a point raised by RTPI in our Housing Policy Paper and Planning in the next Parliament document, and this prevents sustainable development in general.

In terms of the election, Thomson pointed out that Labour failed to mention the green belt and relied on the Lyons Review which was equivocal on the issue, whereas the Conservatives were the only party that committed to protecting the green belt. The result is therefore a clear mandate for protecting the green belt.

[O]ne general lesson that can be drawn from the Netherlands, Germany and France is that of concentrating development on areas that is accessible and sought after rather than saying development should not happen in general.

Nicholas Falk (URBED) stated that we do need a review of the green belt, not just for the economic reasons pointed out by some, like Paul Cheshire at the London School of Economics, but also because there is a wellbeing cost to green belt restrictions.

If we are to have sustainable development and ‘green’ the green belt, according to Falk we need ‘positive planning’. Strategic planning should lead on what goes where, and in terms of funding new mechanisms should reinvest the ‘land value uplift’ into local infrastructure. Although it is difficult to impose policies from continental Europe, one general lesson that can be drawn from the Netherlands, Germany and France is that of concentrating development on areas that is accessible and sought after rather than saying development should not happen in general.

Drawing on his recent paper The Green Noose, Tom Papworth from the Adam Smith Institute argued that the idea that the UK is heavily built up is a myth. Papworth provided a raft of statistics about the amount of building in the country, for example the level of development per person is the third lowest in the European Union. The reason there are such massive misperceptions about the amount of built environment covering the country is because urban areas are so densely populated so people assume the rest of the country is too.

Papworth pointed out that we need to have a conversation about the welfare costs of the green belt and decide as a society whether we are willing to accept things like smaller houses, house price volatility, and an increased cost of living in order to preserve the green belt. At the moment the public are not being made aware that they are implicitly making this trade. It’s also important that the public is made aware of the actual benefits of the green belt. For example green space stops having amenity value after a distance of one mile. There is a perception that the green belt is doing more good than is actually the case.

Papworth concluded that the UK is not over-populated or over-developed, the official justification for green belts is based on dubious assumptions, and green belts do not deliver what people believe they deliver. He went on to make three proposals:

1. Abolish and protect

2. Declassify all intensive agricultural land

3. Limited declassification of intensive agricultural land near green belt railway stations.

It was fascinating to hear such wildly divergent viewpoints one after the other, and the discussion that followed was suitably lively. If you would like to read and listen to more about the green belt, there are podcasts and slides from the event below, and an RTPI document explaining the concept of the green belt on our website.

Click here to see Tim Marshall’s presentation.

Click here to see Matt Thomson’s presentation.

Click here to see Nicholas Falk’s presentation.

Click here to see Tom Papworth’s presentation.

Podcasts of interviews with the chair and the speakers are also available on the RTPI website:

Click here to hear Danny Dorling discuss housing development, green belts, and tax reform.

Click here to hear Nicholas Falk, Founder Director of UrbEd, discuss sustainable development, tax reform, and taking advantage of accessibility.

Click here to hear Tom Papworth of the Adam Smith Institute discuss developer capacity and Ireland’s lack of green belts. Click here for part 2.

Click here to hear Matt Thomson of CPRE talking about planning, investment, and the green belt.

Joe Kilroy is Policy Officer at the RTPI and author of Making Better Decisions for Places