The Green Belt: A Place for Londoners?

Green Belt within London What is the Green Belt actually used for? This week a joint report from Quod, London First and SERC, looks at how the Green Belt within Greater London is used, and asks whether parts of it could be better used. Green Belts cover far more of England than our cities do. Even within Greater London 22% of land is Green Belt (compared to 27.6% covered by buildings, pavements, roads and railways). Policy is clear about how this land shouldn’t be used – housing and other development is largely banned – but much less thought is given to how it should be used, or even how it currently is used. So, what is the Green Belt?

This week’s report looks at Green Belt within London itself, but similar patterns are likely in the rest of the Metropolitan Green Belt, and in other Green Belts.

The analysis found it was pretty mixed. Ranging from the beautiful, to the frankly very ordinary. Green Belts, after all, are not an environmental designation, and are not intended to protect beautiful places. Other planning designations, are already in place to protect the most valuable wildlife sites, for example. The map below shows the 13% of the Green Belt within London that is a nature reserve, Ancient Woodland, or a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Environmentally Protected Land in London Green Belt The other surprise is how little of the Green Belt is formally accessible to the public. The map below shows only 13% is a park, or designated public access land (with some overlap with the places in the previous map – the two together make up 22%). There are of course other areas crossed by footpaths or with other access, but much of the of the Green Belt is fenced private land.

Parks and public access land in London Green Belt And what that private land is mainly used for is agriculture – 59% is farmed, mostly arable, but with a good scattering of horse paddocks too. And the rest? A huge variety of odd uses – sewage works, airfields, gravel pits etc. But one of the biggest remaining uses is golf. A total of 7.1% of the Green Belt land with Greater London is used for golf courses, an area of nearly two and a half thousand hectares – that’s twice the size of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Agriculture and Golf in London Green Belt Finally, the report found that 60% of the Green Belt Land in London is within 2km of an existing rail or tube station. Even if you exclude the environmentally protected and public access land identified above, that leaves 42% of London’s Green Belt in other uses, close to stations.

Accessible land in London's Green BeltThe planning case

More of London is Green Belt than has buildings standing on it. In two boroughs – Bromley and Havering – more than half the entire borough is Green Belt. For a city growing as fast as London, it is difficult to solve the housing crisis when so much of the city is off-limits.

Green Belt by borough Planning policy (paragraph 80 of the NPPF) says there are five purposes of Green Belts:

  1. To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas
  2. To prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another
  3. To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment
  4. To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns
  5. To assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land

Only a tiny proportion (6%) of London’s Green Belt is actually within London itself and some of the purposes of the Green Belt are less relevant there. It is not preserving the setting of a historic town, nor (within London) is it preventing neighbouring towns from merging together. The scale of housing demand is so huge that brownfield development in London no longer needs “encouragement” from the Green Belt (although it may need investment in infrastructure).

That leaves “safeguarding the countryside”, and “restricting sprawl”. The first of these seems an odd thing to aim to do within a city itself. Cities need open spaces, but those open spaces need to be put to good use, giving people the amenity they need. Parks, commons and playing fields are hugely valuable to people’s quality of life. But what do we gain by fencing off parts of the city as bleak arable fields, with no public access? The real countryside, outside London, would be better protected from encroachment if London was given more space to grow within it’s boundaries.

So we are left with the justification of restricting sprawl, and indeed Green Belts were partly a reaction to rapid growth of suburbia in the 1930s. “Sprawl” is not always easy to define – London’s Victorian sprawl is now it’s gentrifying inner suburbs, although most would agree that London does not want low-density, car-dependent and isolated new communities. But ironically, by ruling out accessible sites within London itself, Green Belt designations may actually encourage less sustainable development much further away.

Preventing unsustainable sprawl should not mean preventing better forms of growth. A sensible review of Green Belt boundaries within London could identify appropriate locations for much needed homes, while continuing to protect all the sites that are worth protecting for other reasons – whether because of their environmental quality or amenity value. Only a tiny proportion of the least valuable Green Belt would be needed to transform our ability to tackle the housing crisis.

The NPPF says Green Belt should only be reviewed in exceptional circumstances. London’s growth, and housing crisis, are just that. It is time we looked again at where the boundaries should lie.

You can download the full Green Belt report here.

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