A new deal for the green belt

What is the potential of green belt reform and what it would mean for housing policy in the UK?

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Can you tell me a bit about what Urbanist Architecture does?  
Urbanist Architecture is a firm with a difference. We’re Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA)-accredited and we focus on both architecture and planning simultaneously. Since our founding in 2013, we’ve received over 500 planning permissions, and this kind of unrivalled success rate for our applications has seen our reputation as London’s foremost planning permission architect grow. The majority of our works are for residential developments, including sustainable urban design projects for green belt land schemes in the UK.         

How do considerations of environmental sustainability enter into your developments and how does this relate to the green belt?     
Nowadays sustainability has to be at the forefront of any building development. Building and planning regulations require a proper consideration of ecological impact prior to construction. The trend for “Passive House” buildings in northern Europe is impressive. They are buildings which follow an extremely thorough but voluntary standard of energy efficiency that results in ultra-low energy buildings requiring little power either for heating or cooling. But they’re unaffordable for most people, and so the “Passivhaus” standard is unavailable as a mass-scale solution. Just as important as thinking about the efficiency of individual buildings is how those buildings are part of a community, how well integrated they are into public transport networks, and how residents access local amenities, travel to work and interact with their surroundings. Houses need to be tied to the communities in which they exist rather than isolated – and this needs to be part of the planning process.

The green belt was first proposed around London in 1935. It was a way of preventing urban sprawl, maintaining natural open spaces and green recreational areas under threat from development. This, of course, has significant benefits for conservation and air quality, as well as maintaining the traditional image – and global identity – of the classic English countryside, with its rolling hills and green fields, without being threatened by the encroachment of cities. All of this is incredibly laudable and is something we shouldn’t lose sight of, but the green belt policy is not without its criticisms. These have included concerns that it has limited the availability of land, pushed up the cost of new housebuilding and contributed to a crisis of supply and affordability that is affecting millions across the UK’s towns and cities.        

Is the green belt worth having, or is it anachronistic?     
The green belt, in some form, is definitely worth having. But the designation of the green belt that we’re currently using is dated from the 1940s. The postwar Labour government allowed local authorities to include green belt proposals in development plans, and in the 1950s local authorities were encouraged to consider protecting surrounding land using the hard designation of defined green belts. But a lot has changed since then, not least the cost of land, which has skyrocketed, but also the character of the land originally classified as green belt. A lot of Greater London, which has expanded rapidly since the 1950s, now includes green belt. Areas around Enfield and Barnet, places which would usually be considered part of London’s urban orbit, actually contain some green belt areas. These areas might not be the first to come to mind when you picture a quaint kind of rural idyll. This is because not all of the green belt area is greenfield. The green belt is a planning category rather than a description of what a place looks like. And actually green belt includes a lot of previously developed brownfield sites, and even covers entire villages.

A lot of brownfield isn’t found in the middle of the countryside, but is often near train tracks and train stations in urban and suburban districts. These kinds of places can actually pose a positive opportunity for developing car-free urban spaces, close to public transport and mass transit services.

This year, the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s (CPRE) annual State of Brownfield report claims that enough suitable brownfield land is available for the construction of more than a million homes across 18,000 sites. However, this misses a crucial point – green belt and brownfield aren’t separate entities. The green belt, as it currently stands, includes both brownfield and greenfield sites. This demonstrates that CPRE’s opposition to green belt development is misplaced, as they are trying to promote the use of brownfield to increase land availability. This is based upon the common confusion between the green belt area with greenfield sites.     

Why do you think a consensus is growing around the need for green belt reform?    
Earlier this year, Shelter estimated that there are 277,000 homeless people in England. Millions of new homes need to be built over the coming decades, in order to meet rising demand for housing. In London, the average price of a house is £475,000, more than ten times the average salary, which is therefore unattainable for the vast majority of people. Private rents have skyrocketed in recent years along with house prices. A large part of this is due to a governmental failure to ensure that adequate housing is built. Reform and development of some areas of the green belt, particularly brownfield areas, would ease the strain on affordable housing. A 2014 report by the Centre for Cities found that within 25 minutes’ walk of a train station there is land available for 1.4 million homes in the UK’s 10 least affordable cities’ built up areas. However, this is land designated as green belt, meaning these potential new homes cannot be built. In Britain’s most successful and, consequently, its least affordable cities, there is enough brownfield land for 425,000 new homes.

When it comes to green belt, public attitudes, as well as attitudes of those            of local and national governments, need to change if we are to make serious inroads into solving the housing crisis. This isn’t a question of wrecking England’s pastures green, but about sensible development of brownfield land to provide decent homes for all and ease the pressure on the country’s housing market.