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Below is the press release announcing the London Society debate about the Green Belt and Jonathan Manns's position paper. You can read or download the paper here. Jonathan Manns is Associate Director of Planning at Colliers International. 

On Monday 6th October 2014 the Government published new guidance which reaffirmed the way it believes Councils should negotiate the politically choppy waters between discussions around housing and the green belt. In many ways it adds little to the discussion – again stressing that housing need doesn’t outweigh the need for protection – but it also indicates a key battlefield on which next year’s general election will be fought. It’s an important topic which needs to be framed now, before politicians seek the cathartic relief of yet more empty statements.

Even before updating its National Planning Policy Guidance the Coalition Government had made its position on the green belt clear. Responding to the winner of this year’s Wolfson Economic Prize, which sought answers to the question ‘how would you deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?’, Housing Minister Brandon Lewis had quickly asserted the Government’s commitment ‘to protecting the green belt from development’ and stressed that the ‘proposal from Lord Wolfson’s competition is not government policy and will not be taken up’. The Minister’s statement would have been far easier to make a generation ago when the green belt was steadily expanding and housing pressures were far less acute. London’s population had been steadily falling until the mid-1980s to just over 6 million people. Then, a declining industrial base and raft of New Towns had meant that housing need and expanding green belt were not incompatible; but in many places this is no longer the case. Today, England’s population is rising steadily and London’s has boomed to an all-time high of 8.3 million people. 

The capital is growing more quickly than at any other point in its history and is set to exceed 10 million by 2030. It’s no surprise therefore that housing is climbing the political agenda. Housebuilding levels are at their lowest for a generation and we are building fewer houses per year than we were in 1914. Prices are rapidly inflating despite there being little real wage growth and whilst mortgage payments in London comprised 26% of take home pay in 1993 this had risen to 53% by 2013. House prices have increased in the capital by an average of 25% in 2013 alone. It’s left millions of families in the private-rented sector and there are, arguably, deep structural problems impacting upon the way that housing is delivered. Not only was the housing market not always like this, but neither was our perception of the green belt as a vast and semi-sacred expanse within which there could be no new development. 

This first mention of green belts in England came from London County Council member Lord Meath in 1889. Meath was picking-up on ideas that had been developing in Europe, Australia and America during the previous quarter-century; particularly inspired by parkways as in Chicago and the Ringstraße in Vienna. For him and other early commentators (notably William Bull, George Pepler and David Niven) this formed the basis on which the idea emerged before being included in the first Development Plan of Greater London, published by the London Society in 1919. The London Society’s Plan sought to provide a relatively narrow belt of land, largely for the purposes of health and recreational amenity, between a quarter-mile and two-miles wide; permanently preserved but beyond which development could occur. Alongside the work of the newly formed Ministry of Health, which was keen to explore the agricultural potential of such a belt in the wake of the First World War, the idea slowly simmered in the imagination of town planners until a new political makeup at the London County Council in 1934 bought renewed energy to the discussion. 

A green belt scheme was initiated in 1935 and this quickly led to a Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act becoming law in 1938. This is the point at which local authorities first became able to purchase land for protection as open space and a wave of large-scale acquisitions were made by the counties surrounding London with a view to making them accessible to everybody. The Town and Country Planning Act (1947) subsequently introduced a requirement for local authorities devise a plan for their areas and enabled them to designate land outside their ownership as green belt. At the time people weren’t sure the idea would catch-on but, backed by legislative support, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government set out the first official reasons for designating green belt in 1950 as (1) to check the further growth of a large built-up area, (2) to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another, and (3) to preserve the special character of a town. They picked up on some important ideas from the previous half-century, but another layer was added. With an uncertain future Duncan Sandys, Minister of Housing and Local Government, was proactively encouraging local authorities to consider protecting land around their towns by designating clearly defined green belts of ‘some 7 to 10 miles deep’. Yet, as we now know, the idea proved very popular indeed and it didn’t take long for problems to emerge. 

In 1960 the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London had concluded, when considering changes to the Surrey Development Plan, that ‘the main object of these revisions is to bring the greater part of Surrey into the green belt with the object of ensuring that if London’s population overleaps the green belt, as it’s clearly doing, the emigrants shall alight, say, in Hampshire or Sussex, rather than in Surrey’. There’s a striking resemblance to today, with the Mayor’s own draft London Infrastructure Plan 2050 (2014) analysing spatial patterns of growth and reviewing only ‘the potential for increased densities in urban areas’ and ‘the role that new towns and urban extensions can play in areas beyond the Green Belt’. This identifies ‘major growth potential’ as existing on land north of London and skips immediately beyond London’s current green belt boundary. From an aspirational belt of 0.25-10 miles wide from 1890-1960 (increased to preserve the setting of agricultural land), London’s green belt now extends to some 35 miles out. In 2013, England had more designated green belt land (1.6 million hectares) than the total amount of ‘Built-up Areas and Gardens’ in the entire United Kingdom (1.3 million hectares). London’s green belt alone extended to 516,000 hectares, equivalent to 3.9% of England’s entire land area. The capital’s green belt is so large that even if the current requirement for 1 million new homes over the next 15 years was built within it and entirely at a low density it would require only 25,000 hectares; equivalent to 4.8% of the current area (1.5% of the national total). It’s vital therefore that we move the debate forward rationally, stop the political posturing and start to have informed discussions around delivering the growth which the country needs. 

From the 1920s onwards there was an explicit link between stopping the outward spread of the city and the construction of new settlements elsewhere. Patrick Abercrombie, who founded what’s now the Campaign to Protect Rural England in 1926 and later prepared for first Greater London Plan (1944) had ‘no doubt but that the satellite principle is that upon which the whole of London should proceed for its future residential spreading and increase’. For him the new settlement at Welwyn (founded 1920) showed how ‘in competent architectural hands and well-planned, a new centre may become an additional feature of interest in a country of famed old towns and villages’. Urban extensions or growth corridors may now be considered more appropriate in some circumstances but we used to recognise that protection of the countryside was compatible with meeting housing need and must return to this point. Current policy correctly emphasises the role that previously developed land can make to securing growth. 

Yet our towns and cities will each need, at some level, to integrate with their green belts; whether through the release of parcels on the city fringe, expansion of existing satellite towns or development of new settlements elsewhere. There will inevitably be some areas where ‘greenfield’ development is more acceptable than elsewhere, but in order to identify these places we need to move away from the idea that that countryside is a sacrosanct patchwork of medieval fields. We need to establish an empirically informed position and start to locate housing in areas with the most appropriate environmental and economic capacity. The first step is to stop treating the matter as the bait with which to fish for votes and recognise the national cross-party importance of securing the homes and jobs this country needs.