Is Britain's green belt a luxury we can no longer afford?

En route to a meeting recently, my colleague and fellow Essex-dweller, Emma, and I found ourselves discussing our feelings of exasperation toward green belt land, including many of the issues highlighted in a recent article in The Guardian by Jonn Elledge, editor of City Metric.

Emma cited her frustration that the green belt’s primary modern function seems to be to increase commuter distances, significantly impacting on productivity and wellbeing. Whilst agreeing the need to avoid coalescence between settlements in many cases, she is continually frustrated to hear that there is no space to build in her borough (Brentwood), when there absolutely and most definitely is significant room for much needed development (Brentwood has just a fraction off 90% green belt). She observed that what they mean when they say that, is that there is very little space which isn't green belt which can be built on, which isn't the same thing.

This I feel, is made yet more frustrating by the fact that much of this off-limits green belt land is entirely suitable for development, in many cases made up of brownfield (pre-developed) sites – yet it continues to be a cause of uproar (largely led by CPRE and NIMBYs) when such pragmatic approaches to green belt use are suggested. Part of this may be, as Elledge observes, due to the similarity between the terms “green belt” and “green field” leading some to conflate the two. But, whilst people may imagine the green belt as rolling countryside, substantial parts of the green belt include much needed brownfield sites, just as non-green belt areas can include Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) which absolutely should be preserved.

NIMBYs and CPRE alike may wish to note the decrease in housing affordability by 15.4% in the South East since 2007* indicating the desperate need for more housing in the area. Figures such as this have led Savills Director, Chris Buckle, to state that “to solve the problem of under supply in the South East, there needs to be substantially more land being released for housing development in the higher-demand areas.” The green belt clearly demonstrates the opposite. What we are doing then, by trying to prevent urban sprawl, is driving house prices up and the young out.

In this context, the green belt becomes a huge barrier to affordability, raising the unpopular question: Is it time we amend our attitude to the green belt? If we continue to price out young people, they will leave. What will we do then? At least we'll be able to stop complaining that our schools are full!

*(according to Savills ‘on track to solving the housing crisis’ report).

This article was written by Phoebe Gray, Account Executive at MPC.