The Green Belt: is now the time to change the rules?

The Green Belt has been part of the UK’s planning policy since before the Second World War, designed to prevent urban sprawl and maintain the country’s agricultural areas and countryside. It accounts for 13% of England’s land area and 16% of Northern Ireland. Every construction company is aware of the stringent planning restrictions on Green Belt land. Current planning law states that only a handful of new building types (such as farm buildings and limited infilling in villages) are permissible in these areas. However, in “very special circumstances” the rules may be broken and development can go ahead. Guidance from the government suggests that housing need isn’t enough of a justification for development, but with experts claiming that nearly a quarter of a million new homes must be built each year to resolve the housing crisis, is it time to change the rules?

A necessary step?

Ask five different politicians about the housing crisis and you’ll hear five different reasons why housebuilding is so sluggish in the UK. If we’re to meet that 240,000 annual target, we’ll have to almost double current figures. What’s the limiting factor? Some politicians argue the planning system is to blame, others suggest that housebuilders are ‘sitting’ on land as prices rise, and others say that it’s the collapse in public sector housebuilding that’s caused the crisis. 

In a recent survey by Lloyds [pdf], housebuilders were asked to suggest why the housing shortage hadn’t been tackled effectively. Slow planning decisions (46%), public opposition to development (42%), lack of previous investment (42%) and a dearth of suitable land for development (38%) were the top answers.  Relaxing planning rules isn’t likely to help with reducing public opposition to developments, of course, but it’ll certainly release land that’s less costly to develop than brownfield sites. Additionally, lack of land for development is the only long term issue amongst these answers – suggesting that we should take steps to tackle it as soon as possible, before the problem worsens.

While the majority of the general public remain opposed to building on Green Belt land, the fact is that not all the land in these protected areas is ‘green’. For example, land within a certain radius of railway stations within the Green Belt doesn’t hold much agricultural or environmental value, but housing in these areas would be in great demand. Many experts suggest that we should alter boundaries to take into account the environmental quality of the land instead of merely its location. This would allow for small, sensitive developments on this land while causing the minimum disruption to the local environment. 

Is building on the Belt the only way forward?

The current government are heavily opposed to development and have instead put forward a number of planning reforms to increase housebuilding in other ways, such as converting underused office buildings into homes without the need for planning permission, and granting planning permission automatically on certain brownfield sites. The government hope that a combination of planning changes like these will be sufficient to boost housebuilding to required numbers, without the need for development – which would undoubtedly be unpopular with the electorate. In addition, some experts believe that weakening the Green Belt would lead to rapid urban sprawl, not only putting huge strain on infrastructure but also reducing urban regeneration in areas where it is sorely required.

Boundaries aren’t determined by Westminster – it is through local authorities’ Local Plans where the decisions are made. Of course, adjusting boundaries is only the first step. Planning permission must be sought, and local opposition overcome.  Nevertheless, research shows that 11 local authorities created Local Plans which would reduce Green Belt land, and this number is expected to increase over the remainder of the decade. In 2014-15, planning permission was granted to nearly 12,000 homes on the Green Belt, a fivefold increase from 2009-10.

Overall, completely ruling out new housing developments in the Green Belt area without evaluating its boundaries seems foolhardy. If the government is serious about tackling the housing crisis, all potential solutions must be examined. Freeing up land alone will not solve all the country’s housing problems, particularly in the short term, but an open minded approach is required to tackle the housing crisis effectively.

For further analysis on the current state of the construction industry, plus tips and advice for construction SMEs, follow the Integrity Software blog.

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