Much of our green belt land isn’t actually green

In this blog we try to unravel the intricacies of policy that impact upon permission being granted for developments in designated Green Belt areas and the controls it is subject to.

What are Green Belts?

Green Belt land refers to an area that is kept in reserve for an open space, most often around larger cities. The main purpose of the green belt policy is to protect the land around larger urban centres from urban sprawl, and maintain the designated area for forestry and agriculture as well as to provide habitat to wildlife.

Green Belt offers a number of benefits for both urban and rural population. By preventing the urban sprawl, it helps protect agricultural activities and the unique character of rural communities. Urban population, on the other hand, is provided an access to an open space that offers opportunities for outdoor activities and access to clean air.

Areas that are designated as Green Belt must not be built upon because green belt is defined as an open space, however, that does not mean that no buildings can be erected on green belt land.

Green Belt policy is nothing new. In fact, restriction of building around cities can be traced back to the ancient times although green belts were proposed for different reasons back then. The first green belt around London, for instance, ordered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1580 foresaw a three-mile wide belt in order to stop the spread of plague. However, it was possible to obtain permission for a new building so the belt around London in the 16th century never truly functioned as such.

The idea of a Green Belt in the UK in the true meaning of the word dates to the 1930’s when the Greater London Regional Planning Committee proposed the Metropolitan Green Belt around London. However, it was not until 1947 when the Town and Country Planning Act allowed local authorities to include Green Belts in their town plans, while the first Green Belts were not designated until the 1950’s with specific purposes:

– To prevent urban sprawl

– To prevent towns from merging into one another

– To assist in the regeneration of urban suburbs by encouraging the reuse of derelict or left over suburban land

In the 1950’s local authorities incorporated Green Belt policies within their individual development plans.  Green Belts are established by policy through Local Development Plans and not by parliamentary legislation as is the case for National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  Local authorities are guided by National and Regional Government Policy when devising and implementing their Local Development Plans and it is at this local level that Green Belt boundaries and planning polices are defined. It is also at this local level that planning applications are considered and decided upon.

Where and How Much Green Belt Land is Out There?

Green belt land covers approximately 13% of total area in England, 16% in Northern Ireland and 2% in Scotland.  Wales has only one formally designated green belt area located between Newport and Cardiff.

For example, 22% of all land within the Outer London boundary is Green Belt and this amounts to 1.639 million hectares. This is an interesting statistic as it demonstrates how much land is protected within the overall extent of our capital city and should not be lost if boundary changes occur.

The first diagram below shows how much change has occurred in Green Belt land availability in England during the last 20 years. The fact that the land area has not significantly reduced is an important indicator of how the Greenbelt is protected from development.

What Type of Developments are Permitted on Green Belt Land?

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) provides guidance on Greenbelt Development Policies and these are adopted by Local Authorities.

Paragraph 89 states that inappropriate developments are, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.

Chapter 88 of the NPPF states that ‘Very special circumstances’ will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations.

Chapters 88 and 89 note that the construction of new buildings is inappropriate with the following exceptions (for example purposes):

– The extension or alteration of a building provided that it does not result in disproportionate additions over and above the size of the original building

– The replacement of a building, provided the new building is in the same use and not materially larger than the one it replaces (in the experience of this Architect this usually means 20% larger by volume than the original building or with older buildings the volume of the building as it was at the time of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947).

– Limited infilling in villages, and limited affordable housing for local community needs under policies set out in the Local Plan

– Limited infilling or the partial or complete redevelopment of previously developed sites (brownfield land), whether redundant or in continuing use (excluding temporary buildings), which would not have a greater impact on the openness of the Green Belt and the purpose of including land within it than the existing development


In addition to the above The Local Government Association’s Planning Advisory Service notes that National Planning Policy can make provision for changes to the Green Belt which would then need to be incorporated or adopted within an Authority’s Local Plan. The Planning Advisory Service further notes that the demands for housing can be an exceptional circumstance to justify the review of a Greenbelt boundary.

It should be noted that this does not imply that you can apply for planning for a residential development using the argument that the Local Authority is not meeting its housing supply targets.  Such sites would need to be identified and taken out of the green belt boundary in order for them to be eligible for development.

London’s Green Belt Policy

Within the Draft London Plan 2016 (as reviewed elsewhere on this website) the Mayor has vowed to protect the Green Belt. Whilst the 2016 Draft London Plan does not rule out building on the Green Belt, The Mayor, Sadij Khan has said that ‘Developers building on or near the Green Belt must respect and protect this vital natural resource’.

Policy G2 (Page 103) of the Draft London Plan note the following:

‘Openness and permanence are essential characteristics of the Green Belt, but despite being open in character, some parts of the Green Belt do not provide significant benefits to Londoners as they have become derelict and unsightly.

This is not, however, an acceptable reason to allow development to take place. These derelict sites may be making positive contributions to biodiversity, flood prevention, and reducing the urban heat island effect.

The Mayor will work with boroughs and other strategic partners to enhance access to the Green Belt and to improve the quality of these areas in ways that are appropriate within the Green Belt’.

Within the current London Plan the Mayor’s office notes that Development will be ‘supported if it is appropriate and helps secure the objectives of improving the Green Belt as set out in National Guidance’.

The Reality – Do Projects Get Planning Consent within the Greenbelt?

Although it may be a complex course to navigate it is not impossible to secure planning for development within the Green Belt.  Each year a number of planning applications are granted approval based on one of the following criteria:

1 – Allowed by Policy

Some types of development are permissible as they are not deemed to harm the openness of a Green Belt area. These would be likely to include sports facilities and transport infrastructure.  Small scale residential developments and development supported by local residents through a Community Right to Build Order could also be permissible.

2  – Allowed by Very Special Circumstances

This criteria often means identifying overwhelming reasons as to why the proposed development is appropriate for a particular site and that the harm caused to the Green Belt area would be outweighed by the benefits.

3 – Redevelopment of Brownfield Sites

If a site has previously developed land then planning policy allows for it to be developed. In order to protect the Green Belt the amount of development is generally restricted to the volume of existing buildings on the site.

4 – Remove a Specific Site from Greenbelt Designation

In order to remove the restrictions on the development of specific sites the local authority can remove a specific site from Green Belt designation. Removing a site from the Green Belt can only be undertaken in ‘Exceptional Circumstances’ and in general this means that the amount of development needed to meet the local authority’s needs cannot be accommodated within the areas outside the Green Belt.  This process is generally adopted for larger developments to obviate the ‘high risk element’ i.e. a negative outcome alongside wasted time and costs.

5 – Permitted Development (PD) for Change of Agricultural Buildings to Residential Use

Permitted Development Rights were revised in 2014. One of the new regulations is to allow the conversion of agricultural buildings to residential use without the need for a full planning application. This allows for the conversion for up to 3 dwellings with a maximum of 450m2 of floor area permitted for conversion. (Local authorities are interpreting the legislation in different ways but nearly half of all prior approval applications are successful. Key tests need to be passed but crucially the building to be converted cannot be enlarged in any way).

6 – Paragraph 55 of the NFFP allows single houses of Exceptional Architectural Character

Paragraph 55 of the NPPF allows for a new dwelling to be built in the open countryside (including Green Belt) if it can be demonstrated that it is of exceptional quality or of an innovative design.

Our Position as Architects

 Douglas and King believe the Green Belt should be protected from mass housing developments that are built without consideration for design, quality or lifestyle.  Equally we recognize the importance of preventing urban sprawl, and the value of the Green Belt as an open space and amenity for our cities and towns.

However, we strongly support strategic developments, where appropriate.  We support development control on a local level but we also support well-planned and designed small and mid scale developments that can demonstrate a significant benefit to the local economy and environment with minimal impact.

Reality Check 2

Much Green Belt land isn’t actually green, only 59% of London’s Green Belt is agricultural land. Whilst Green Belt land use is generally designated as ‘open countryside’ there are many examples of former industrial and unsightly sites/uses that have a negative impact.  If these sites were developed respectfully their impact would be positive and ‘greener’ than the existing.

There is another enigma here that links the Green Belt to ‘backland’ inner-city sites.  As housing need has increased and house prices have reached artificial heights we have witnessed a positive response from local authorities in the London area to the thoughtful and sensitive development of ‘backland’ sites.

Click here to read our blog ‘Garden Grabbing’ and to see our ‘House in an Urban Woodland’ project now almost complete to learn more about this topic.