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Sustainability and green belts

19 March 2018 Author: Robert M Purton

Arguably, the Holy Grail of planning in the UK are our Green Belts.  Initially set up over 76 years ago to prevent ribbon development and  urban sprawl, they have become a permanent fixture in the planning system.  

With a recent survey indicating that most people think that almost half of the land is built on when in fact it is less than 10% (and that includes roads and buildings), perhaps now is the time to review this political designation.

Or have they?  A historical trawl indicates that instead of remaining static, they have grown.  Indeed, as time has gone on they have grown exponentially.  Is this right?

I am not for one moment suggesting that we do away with Green Belts. They are a key feature of our system of the regulation of land and have prevented many towns from amalgamating.  In some places this is clearly a good thing.  

However, society, its values, the way we live, and the global, national and local economies have radically changed since the first designations. Is it not time for us to encourage a re-evaluation of which areas of land we, as a profession, label as Green Belt?

The roots of "sustainable development"

The concept of "sustainable development" has its roots in forest management in the medieval period in the UK, but its meaning has significantly widened over the last twenty years.  The first use of the term sustainable in the contemporary sense was by the Club of Rome in 1972 in its classic report Limits to Growth,  Since then, in 1982, the United Nations World Charter for Nature raised five principles of conservation by which human conduct affecting nature could be guided and judged. 

This in turn led, in 1987, to the United Nations publishing Our Common Future, now commonly named the 'Brundtland Report'.  The report stated that sustainable development contains within it two key concepts: the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the poor in society, to which overriding priority should be given, and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

In 1992, the UN’s Earth Charter outlined the building of a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century.  The action plan Agenda 21 then further identified information, integration and participation as key building blocks to help countries achieve sustainable development.

As a result, in the last twenty years the phrase ‘sustainability’ became the suffix to numerous planning policy initiatives - so much so that it is arguably now so over used by politicians, officers, developers and marketers that it verges on being meaningless. 

How compatible are green belts with sustainability?

However, if you accept the core principles of sustainability as being good for society, the case can be made that the growth of Green Belts is in fact unsustainable and is something we really must encourage our political masters to appreciate, understand and change.

Green Belts can and increasingly do, force people to reside outside their preferred settlements as housing and employment growth is artificially constrained by space and price. Many people now need to travel ever increasing distances on a daily basis to earn a living and to obtain what they consider are their daily needs.

They also artificially increase the value of some land and depress the value of other land – which in turn skews the entire regulation of land in our country.

These are large, important issues for society.  They all have negative costs for the majority of citizens.  They all impact on the less advantaged and poorest of society.  So surely, we should, at the very least, encourage a questioning of whether this form of political protection / sterilization of land is still appropriate in every instance?

Review of green belts can be positive

So please, when the opportunity arises to review a planning document that has relevance to the Green Belt, think about a strategic review of the Green Belt.

This can help the non-home owners, our children’s futures and those of your neighbour’s children, the unskilled, under employed, the disadvantaged, those that wish to live near their parents, the silent majority in society, those that wish to live close to existing infrastructure and facilities, and all of us, so we have a chance of living more sustainable lives.

I am not asking for all Green Belt to be built on. But with a recent survey indicating that most people think that almost half of the land is built on when in fact it is less than 10% (and that includes roads and buildings), perhaps now is the time to review this political designation. It should be systematically reviewed, analysed, openly debated and brought up to date.  It may grow.  It may shrink.  It may do both in different places.  But doing nothing is not really very sustainable, is it?

The views expressed are personal and are not necessarily shared by DLA or the RTPI.

Editor’s note: The RTPI led a debate among members on the location housing and published a policy statement Where should we build new homes in November 2016. The statement says that “green belt boundaries may well need to change, but only after a careful review over wider areas than single local authorities, where safeguards are put in place to ensure development is sustainable, affordable and delivered in a timely manner, and without prejudice to the renewal of brownfield land”.


Robert M Purton

Robert M Purton

Robert M Purton MRTPI is partner of town planning, urban design and master planning consultancy David Lock Associates.