What could a world without a Greenbelt look like?

Post Date
03 April 2023
Elle Cass
Read Time
5 minutes

In the thought piece below, Elle Cass - Head of Strategic Built Environment Growth - shares her personal thoughts on what could be achieved without the constraints of Greenbelt on development.

As the UK Government consults on the abolition of housing targets to simplify the planning system and speed up housing delivery, it has struck me that another radical approach could be to remove Greenbelt across England.

Greenbelt is, after all, a +80-year-old concept conceived in a very different time. It was designed originally to deal with fears of urban sprawl and a desire to provide green open space in the inter and post war period. At a time when housing need was being met through unprecedented levels of house building, and when very different social, economic, and environmental challenges were in play.

As we are all aware, we are facing our own generation’s urgent challenges in terms of housing delivery, and consequently the social and economic disadvantages which under-delivery results in. Simply put, a lack of housing supply - particularly affordable, accessible, and sustainable housing - breeds inequality and locks in generational disadvantage.

We are once more at a crossroads, where the planning system is being looked at for a comprehensive overhaul. There is an opportunity to shake up the system and consider how we can more strategically plan our cities, towns and natural environments, taking account of current day challenges around climate change, sustainability, social and economic inequality, poverty, health and wellbeing.

Rather than protecting swathes of often poor quality, publicly inaccessibly land, this could be the moment to set a range of national development parameters which ensure development on Greenbelt land is allowed in instances where it comes with a range of required benefits for society, communities, and the environment. Essentially, the Greenbelt could elevate from its current protectionist construct, to a truly conservationist entity.

Introducing a structured framework dealing with some of the national and global challenges we are facing could start to alter the narrative around housing location, repositioning the focus onto how we can deliver truly sustainable, integrated communities, which are strategically linked to existing facilities. Concurrently, enhancements of new, high quality, and accessible natural space and public realm, along with schools, hospitals, employment, and retail, to meet need and demand and reducing travel could all be key requirements.

Equally, rather than delivering the minimum housing required to meet needs, might we aim for more? This could allow house price growth to start to slow and open up the opportunity of owning a home to more people, including younger people.

The lower abnormal costs associated with developing such land would also make delivering affordable housing more achievable, including in more desirable locations. Similarly, reducing development costs for matters such as remediation would leave headroom for delivering more sustainable buildings, district wide energy efficiency, accessible high quality green space, and a range of other aspirations which relying predominantly on brownfield development often limits or precludes.

With our current global challenges, the whole system of natural and built environment needs to work better, more efficiently, and productively. The Greenbelt in its current form does not allow that at all. We can make so much more of it, as it is not just about homes, but a better integrated system than the Greenbelt offers now.

How can we change the attitude to it?

To change this attitude, we would need to change the narrative from one of “all development is bad”, to “how can we design development to unlock the answers to some of society’s biggest challenges?”.

We could change the consultation debate from “should housing be located here?”, to “this is where housing is required. Let’s discuss the transformative social, environmental, and economic benefits it can unlock”. I am certainly not advocating for a removal of consultation (or indeed democratic process), however the crisis and hiatus in providing housing, and the implications for those who are most impacted by this, cannot continue. We need more informed consultation, with the opportunity to give a bigger picture of what can be achieved as a society, rather than simply focussing on our own backyards.

Redirecting the narrative and policy starting point nationally could release councils and applicants from successive consultations on the principle of housing, allowing the focus to move to the benefits, which could speed up decisions and delivery. I’m not suggesting this very simplified summary of ‘my planning utopia’ is not without its challenges – but for me there are two fundamental questions:

  1. should we be arbitrarily protecting Greenbelt for its own sake, because this was historically deemed appropriate; and
  2. should well located, good homes be a fundamental human right in our society (and if the answer is yes, we have a collective responsibility to make this happen.)

Currently the extent and location of Greenbelt in England (and the issues surrounding its timely and sensible review) make these two points mutually exclusive.

We need to remember that the generations before us made policy which suited the needs of the time, without the scientific tools which we have access to today. On this basis, do we still have the need for such binary restriction as the Greenbelt, when all development is held to a much higher level of scrutiny now than ever before? The science and knowledge are available to create great natural and built environments – we need to change the narrative so that development is not viewed as another corporate win, but a necessity to build the homes we need.

Of course, I am not prescribing the total deletion of landscape and visual protections for our open countryside, how could I? But surely, we shouldn’t be taking another dead-end turn in planning reform relating to the delivery of the housing and healthy communities we so desperately need.

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