"We need to build on the Green Belt"

PUBLISHED: 31 Jan 2013

AUTHOR: Jason Smith

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A green belt is an area surrounding a town or city where building development is restricted. The stated aim of green belt policy is to restrict the sprawl of built up areas on to previously undeveloped land and to preserve the character of historic towns [Ref: DEFRA]. The first green belts were introduced in the 1950s following the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947.  Today, there are14 green belts around most of England’s bigger cities and amount to 1.65 million hectares, about 13 per cent of the country [Ref: Economist].  ‘Special areas of conservation’, ‘sites of special scientific interest’ and ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’ account for a further 29.8 per cent of the country where development is restricted [Ref: bshf]. A new report by the think-tank Policy Exchange says that by contrast, “developed” land, which includes parks, allotments, golf courses and gardens as well as concrete, covers just 10.6% of England and they suggest relaxing the rules on new development [Ref: Policy Exchange]. Those who see problems with green belts point to London as an example. They argue that the 40-mile wide green belt around London strangles the life out of the capital - responsible for restricting economic growth, for the high cost of housing, and for encouraging the destruction of valuable green space within cities, such as playing fields, allotments and gardens. [Ref: Guardian]. Others say that green belts have been a success, saving the English countryside from being disfigured by unthinking development.  They are concerned that short-term economic interests will lead us to desecrating our natural heritage and endangering our long-term wellbeing [Ref: Independent].

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Housing Crisis
House prices in the UK have almost doubled in the last decade and with prices now approaching eight times the average wage [Ref: Guardian]. Millions of people sit on council housing registers waiting for housing, and the age at which people buy their first home is rising – restricting opportunities for young people [Ref: Guardian]. Some have estimated that 232,000 new homes need to be built each year in England just to replace Britain’s ageing housing stock before we even consider building the extra homes people now need [Ref: spiked]. Given that over 90% of the UK population now live in cities, many ask how this problem will be tackled unless cities are allowed to expand. Others also argue that we have a romantic view of the green belts – that, rather than being chosen for its beauty or environmental qualities, much of it is used for intensive farming and light industry [Ref: Economist]. Since 2010, planning consents approvals have fallen by 24% - building more houses would help address homelessness, push down rents and house prices, and provide jobs for thousands who are currently on the dole [Ref: National Housing Federation]. Freeing up just 1% of green belt land alone could provide space for 300,000 new homes.

Access to green spaces
Opponents of relaxing regulations on green belt development counter that the countryside surrounding cities is a vital asset that gives city dwellers access to green open space, helps retain the unique character of cities, towns and villages, and is valuable and important farming land [Ref: Guardian]. They also point out the dangers flooding poses to housing built on new land – estimating that half of all houses built in Britain since WWII have been built on land vulnerable to flooding. Concreting over the countryside only risks exacerbating the problem [Ref: Telegraph]. Expanses of green space have environmental benefits, counteracting the ‘heat sinks’ of cities and enabling local food to be grown, thus reducing food miles. It is not green belts which are the cause of housing problems, they argue, but rather economic issues which are to blame [Ref: Telegraph].

Building on the brownfield
Protectors of the green belt don’t deny that new housing is not needed. Instead, they recommend building on “brownfield” land – building on previously used, now derelict land within cities. According to the Government’s own National Land Use Database, this brownfield land has space for over 1.5 million new dwellings [Ref: CPRE]. This isn’t always in the right place though – London needs approximately 1 million new homes to meet the demands of its growing population as well as addressing a backlog, yet only has 4,000 hectares of brownfield land – enough to meet around a fifth of this demand [Ref: Guardian]. Others look to addressing the demand side of housing – immigration puts pressure on housing stock and lower levels would reduce the need for so many new houses [Ref: Daily Mail]. Others point to elderly couples living alone in large family houses, and that encouraging them to downsize could free up housing for families [Ref: BBC News]. But critics of existing planning processes point to the severe restrictions home owners face when they are prevented from extending their homes on land they already own. These existing restrictions do not protect the countryside, it’s argued, and when people have been made to apply for retrospective permission for a child’s Wendy House in the back garden [Ref: Daily Mail] is it now time to review Green Belt restrictions?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Is it time to rethink Britain’s green belt?

Rowan Moore Guardian 19 October 2014

The garden city movement: from Ebenezer to Ebbsfleet

Oliver Wainwright Guardian 17 March 2014

Green Belt: Under Renewed Threat?

Campaign to Protect Rural England August 2012

Home is where the money is

Economist 30 June 2012


For a London a hundred miles wide

James Heartfield spiked 27 April 2016

We must build on the green belt to end this housing crisis

Juliet Samuel Telegraph 20 April 2016

We’ve got to dig up the green belt to build more homes

Tim Montgomery The Times 25 September 2015

Shire Tories and greens are denying Brits homes

James Heartfield spiked 20 September 2012

Belt too tight

Economist 8 September 2012


The myth of the housing crisis

Simon Jenkins Spectator 28 February 2015

The bulldozers are coming for the Green Belt

Harry Wallop Telegraph 10 September 2012

Relaxing Planning Laws Will Damage British Housing

Marton Roberts Huffington Post 7 September 2012

The Government must stop the insults, and listen to our concerns

Fiona Reynolds Telegraph 3 September 2011

We must protect England’s green belts

Oliver Hilliam Guardian 28 July 2010


Housing White Paper

Department for communities and local government Gov.UK 7 February 2017

The green belt, a place for Londoners?

London First January 2015

Anger over plans to build on greenbelt

Jim Pickard Financial Times 23 September 2012


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Where is the world’s most sprawling city?

Douglas Murray Guardian 19 April 2017

The green belt is strangling our towns and cities

James Heartfield spiked 10 February 2017

Government has missed an opportunity to loosen the green belt

Ben Rochelle Huffington Post 10 February 2017

Let’s make the best of the homes we have

Alice Thomson The Times 8 February 2017

Forget new homes, we are not making the most of what we have

Simon Jenkins Evening Standard 6 October 2015

Why the green belt matters

Bill Bryson The Times 30 September 2015

Britain’s housing crisis: are garden cities the answer?

Patrick Barkham Guardian 1 October 2014

Build new homes on brownfield land

Eric Pickles Telegraph 13 June 2014

Six reasons why we should build on the green belt

Colin Wiles Guardian 21 May 2014

High rise living is the only way to protect the green belt

Hannah Fearn Guardian 13 September 2013

Build more houses on the countryside? I’ve got a better plan

Michelle Hanson Guardian 11 December 2012

In Britain, everyone has a place in the country

Roger Scruton Telegraph 1 December 2012

How permanent is your Green Belt?

Tim Stansfeld Planning 27 November 2012

Pay residents to accept building on Green Belt

Tim Ross Telegraph 13 September 2012

Govt need to U-turn on planning

Craig Bennett 9 September 2012

The green belt isn’t as green and pleasant as you’d think

Isabel Hardman Spectator 17 August 2012

Protect our green and pleasant land

Independent 21 March 2012

Protect our green and pleasant land

Independent 21 March 2012

Planning in a free society

Adam Smith Institute 8 March 2012

Britain needs more houses, but it doesn’t need them everywhere

Andrew Carter Centre for Cities 23 January 2012

Milton Keynes


Suburbia has never had a good reputation

Tim Leunig Inside Housing


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Loophole opens way for green belt homes

The Times 13 February 2017

Anger over plans to develop Reigate green belt

Surrey Today 23 January 2013


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