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How Greenbelt Spaces In The Uk Can Be Protected, Even As Land Development Increases

By Expert Author: Kelly Leary

Can development lead to better greenbelts in the UK?

The UK housing shortage demands development. Some new ways of thinking of greenbelts and green space allocation might offer new solutions.

In an era of climate change, it may seem odd that serious challenges to the otherwise sacrosanct greenbelt areas around 14 major urban areas are being made. The reasons are primarily based in the UK’s housing crisis, but in fact a good argument can be made for taking a different perspective on how green, growing, thriving natural environments play an important role in human habitat.

The Conservative minister of planning, Nick Boles, set off a firestorm in late 2012 when he began speaking publicly about opening up 1,500 square miles of open countryside to housing development, increasing the country’s landmass in use for housing from 9 per cent to 12 per cent. He even suggested that some buildings can be more beautiful than nature itself. The Campaign to Protect Rural England predictably and appropriately responded in kind, saying that brownfield lands (those that have been built upon previously) can accommodate up to 1.5 million new homes, rather than “destroying the countryside” with greenfield building.

So why wouldn’t those involved in land investment and land site assembly not take advantage of these brownfield sites? To begin with, they are not always located where the housing need is greatest. And, brownfield lands often need environmental remediation to protect the health and safety of new residents. Added costs, then, pushes the new homes beyond affordability.

The centre-right group, Policy Exchange, takes the position that the high price of housing is actually about the shortage of land on which to build. They say this perversely has led to developer land banking.

“Developers know land release will always be inadequate,” says Alex Morton, who authored a comprehensive report from Policy Exchange. “They therefore hold on to land because it rises in value and it takes a long time to get hold of, meaning that they don’t build enough new housing. The warped nature of the market is shown by the fact house prices have tripled but new homes being built have actually fallen,” he told the Daily Mail.

Natural England, the statutory advisor on landscape to the Government, is taking a different look at greenbelts in light of the skewed economics that Morton cites. For both social and economic reasons, the UK Government wants to build 3 million homes. Because of climate change considerations, Natural England prioritizes green space but with a willingness to challenge the 1950s definitions of greenbelts. The bureau’s chair, Sir Martin Doughty, has said: “The time has come for a greener green belt. We need a 21st century solution to England’s housing needs, which puts in place a network of green wedges, gaps and corridors, linking the natural environment and people.”

Natural England still proposes that green spaces be at the heart of all new development, just simply that instead of a ring encircling towns that those spaces be interspersed within. There are many examples of the existing greenbelt lands that failed to live up to truly environmental excellence: Baroness Hanham, communities minister from the House of Lords, famously said some greenbelt land use was not “absolutely brilliant,” presumably referring to disused property that is neither attractive nor environmentally beneficial.

Indeed, more evolved approaches to urban planning includes the use of landscape within the built environment to mitigate storm water runoff and contribute to the quality of the air. The “wedges” and “corridors” proposed by Doughty could well serve that purpose, bringing actual green spaces more equitably closer to all sections of cities instead of those fortunate enough to reside near the outer edges of the town.

Developers and investors might do well to propose such designs to local planning authorities as they ask for land use designations.

Of course, investors in land development – capital growth fund properties, for example – should not expect a wholesale opening of greenbelt lands in the near term. The economic pressures call for it, but due to the legacy of these fields and forests, the loosening of the greenbelts (so to speak) will at most be incremental.

This affects investors, of course, who are eager to build. Investors in land development should seek independent financial advice on the risks associated with land development – understanding that attitudes on where development is acceptable may be shifting.

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