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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
Green Belts are a planning tool that helps maintain a ring of productive rural landscape around a city.
By designating an area 'green belt' it provides an additional layer of legal authority that allows local authority planners to reject requests for planning permission for most uses that would change the basic rural character of the area. In short, it stops urban areas from expanding by saying to people – you can buy and sell this land to your heart's content, but you can't expect to build housing estates or industrial estates on it; it stays as countryside.
History of Green Belts
The first green belt in Britain was demarcated around London. (Green belts aren't 'built' or signposted – but marked as lines on planners' maps – with an inner edge closer to an urban centre and the outer edge, beyond which more lenient planning regulations apply again).
The 1930's had seen rapid expansion of many towns and cities as, first, public transport (buses and trains) and later, increasing numbers of private cars enabled people to live further from their place of work and become 'commuters'. The result was rapid 'urban sprawl' with unregulated urban expansion.
This was not seen as a desirable trend, so the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act introduced the first green belts
Many other cities followed London's example and applied to government to establish green belts around their own urban centres. At present there are 14 green belts in England, 1 in Wales, 10 in Scotland and 30 in N. Ireland.
Purpose of Green Belts
The intentions behind green belts vary with each city and region of the country. Often more than one of the following apply:
- To prevent the merging of distinct urban centres by restricting urban sprawl.
- To preserve rural landscapes for leisure and recreation within reasonable reach of urban residents.
- To protect the distinctive character of historic and cultural cities (Oxford and Cambridge).
- To conserve valuable high-quality agricultural land in food production.
- To encourage developers to re-use derelict brownfield urban land rather than greenfield agricultural land.
Criticisms of Green Belts
- They encourage 'leap-frog' development – pushing new developments to just beyond the outer edge of the green belt.
- They drive up house-prices within the urban area by restricting new house building.
- With a growing population it becomes harder to justify constraining urban growth.
- They can deter industrial expansion and commercial development
Strengths of Green Belts
- Popular with planning departments – they can plan more effectively by designating (or not) land as green belt.
- They are easy to administer and manage.
- They are popular with rural communities covered by them as fields and views are less likely to be developed.
- They have helped stimulate the regeneration of much inner city land in recent decades.
Alternatives to Green Belts
There are variations to encircling green belts. Some cities have 'green buffers' to segregate two urban areas and prevent them merging (Cheltenham and Gloucester), 'green wedges' bring greenery close to the heart of the urban area but permit alternate zones of urban growth (Berlin), and others designate a 'green heart' with urban growth encouraged around them (Randstad, Netherlands).
The Future of Green Belts
The sustainable cities movement emphasises the need for 'green spaces' within and beyond cities as necessary for a high quality of life. As far as Britain's green belts are concerned there are frequent calls to remove green belt designation over certain areas to allow necessary urban expansion to take place.
But others say this is 'foot in the door' land-use change that will make it more difficult to preserve the remaining green belt. Some argue from a political angle that green belts serve the interests of affluent suburban and rural-urban fringe residents, at the expense of the less affluent seeking affordable housing.
Others say that restricting the land for commerce and business in a globalised world will simply send companies abroad. Yet others argue that the regeneration of many central city areas on once-derelict industrial land couldn't have taken place without green belt policy forcing developers to use second choice land.
Further reading and research