Flexing the Green Belt: Adaptive Solutions for Growing Needs

As green belt numbers reach new highs, developers are rightly feeling the pinch of land constraints. With housing demand intensifying across England, innovative strategies will be key to success.

Green Belt Gains

Recent statistics from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities show a 0.1% increase in land designated as green belt with over 1.6 million hectares (12.6% of land) afforded green belt protections – the largest footprint in over 20 years. While expansion of just 860 hectares sounds modest, it marks two straight years of growth after decades of stability. London unsurprisingly leads regions in percentage allocated at 22%.  A fact sheet from DLUHC can be found at the bottom of this article.

What are the key limitations of green belts?:

  • Restricts urban sprawl and expansion. Green belts are primarily intended to prevent unchecked outward growth of cities and towns into surrounding countryside. This can constrain development opportunities.
  • Limits housing supply. With vast swaths of land protected from construction, green belts may exacerbate housing shortages by reducing available buildsites. This contributes to high property prices in many cities.
  • Counterproductive protections. Overly rigid green belt boundaries could protect marginal agricultural land while urbanising more useful sites. Some argue protections should distinguish high versus low value green space.
  • Transport constraints. Strict containment policies may concentrate development and lengthen commute times by limiting connections between urban and rural areas crossed by green belts.
  • Infill challenges. Redevelopment within existing built environments faces hurdles like piecemeal ownership, existing use rights, and cramming new homes into nonstandard spaces.
  • NIMBY opposition. Even minor green belt revisions can ignite pushback from community groups worried about sustainability and neighbourhood impacts of any changes.
  • Policy inflexibility. Exceptional circumstances required to alter boundaries make green belts ill-suited to adapt to long-term shifts in economic, demographic and land use priorities over decades.

How are green belts designated?

In England green belts are identified in development plans. These set out the long-term spatial vision for an area.

  • Councils determine which parcels of land around cities and towns should be afforded green belt status based on factors like containing urban sprawl, preventing neighbouring towns from merging, and preserving the countryside setting.
  • Public consultations are typically held as part of the development plan process to gather feedback on proposed green belt boundaries.
  • National policy guidelines in the Nation Planning Policy Framework provide the overarching framework for designation. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to check unrestricted sprawl, prevent neighbouring towns merging, assist in safeguarding the countryside, preserve the setting of historic towns, assist urban regeneration.
  • Detailed maps show the areas designated as green belt. Boundaries aim to use permanent, readily recognisable features where possible like roads, streams or field edges.
  • Council plans are independently examined and subject to public inquiry before the Secretary of State may confirm them.
  • Once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified, through the preparation or updating of plans. Strategic policies should establish the need for any changes to Green Belt boundaries, having regard to their intended permanence in the long term, so they can endure beyond the plan period.

According to the recent data, 10 local councils approved updated Green Belt designations in 2022-23. This resulted in an overall net expansion of 870 hectares compared to the previous year.

Of the 10 councils that enacted Green Belt alterations, eight saw a net reduction while two experienced a net increase. The most notable change was in North Hertfordshire, where the Green Belt boundary grew by 3,350 hectares. This 24% spike represented the largest proportional enlargement reported.

Green belt designation v’s housing crisis?

The net increase in England’s green belt land over the past two years is likely to exacerbate the country’s housing crisis in a few key ways.  For instance with over 1.6 million hectares now designated as green belt, this is likely to restrict land supply to housing construction, it severely limits available plots of land to build new homes.

Green belts are meant to prevent urban sprawl, but in high demand areas they may be hindering the ability to expand towns/cities where people want to live through new developments.  In turn this scarcity of buildable land in many high-value locations pushes prices up as demand outstrips supply. This makes homes increasingly unaffordable.

The consequence could be young professionals priced out of areas near economic hubs because of insufficient housing stock.  So while green belts aim to safeguard land, an overly restrictive interpretation likely worsens affordability and availability in practice. A balanced approach is needed.

Time for Change?

Is it time for to conduct a comprehensive review of green belt boundaries at national level to ensure they are truly serving their intended purposes. Carefully consider releasing lower-value agricultural/marginal land for development in sustainable locations where it wouldn’t compromise primary green belt aims.  Or could it be that streamlining the planning system to allow more housing via permitted development rights or through a fast track system to push forward housing developments on non-green belt land is developed?

Navigating New Realities

In the meantime whilst the planning system is tweaked with little changes to green belts, simply lobbying for boundary pushes is a political non-starter. So how can innovative builders meet housing targets within these parameters? Some propose focusing inside existing areas. Underutilised brownfields offer infill potential while avoiding sprawl. Transport hubs near employment center are also ripe for transit-oriented redevelopment.

Collaborating with councils and environmental groups can unlock opportunities regular proposals miss. Exploring surplus public lands or underdeveloped commercial parcels presents win-wins. Alternative housing models providing affordable spacing also merit discussion. Demonstrating comprehensive community benefits builds consensus for creative solutions.

Advanced construction techniques uphold stringent quality-of-life standards while maximising densities. Strategic use of taller, slimmer designs with thoughtful landscaping maintains rural feels. Renewable energy and sustainability practices ease environmental worries.

I would like to think that even with “immovable” boundaries, those who think creatively to reimagine housing solutions within green belt constraints could find the means to rise above challenges.

However notwithstanding developers challenges with the restrictions that Green Belt brings, local planning authorities with green belt in their areas and with Local Plans to prepare, have to make provision for needed development within a very sensitive context.  Discussions about green belt are often challenging and controversial, with the potential for increases to green belt and the ever-growing population its doubtful that this is going to change anytime soon.

Related Content

Our article ‘Is it Time to Rebrand Green Belts?’ looked at the role of green belts and if it was too restrictive.  Whereas our Practical Guide to Development in the Green Belt gives you an understanding of what a Council or Planning Inspector will look at when determining a planning proposal within a Green Belt.

Green belt expansion

increase to green belt for two years running