In the UK, the ‘green belt’ is a land development policy for controlling urban growth, subsequently aiming to protect areas from sprawling urbanisation and guarantee the containment of urban and suburban expansion. England has green belts covering 13% of its total land area, Northern Ireland 16%, Scotland 2% and Wales, with one green belt zone, less than 1%.
But it’s this availability of the green belt as potential development land that has led to widespread debate, particularly at a time when population demand for housing and planning is increasing. The UK used to build more than 300,000 new homes a year in the decades following the Second World War; now it only manages about half that number. It raises the question of whether we should be making it easier to use this protected land – or should we be looking at alternatives?
Addressing the housing crisis
Developers have seen a stalling of the building industry in recent years, as a result of the overriding recession. Some see one of the barriers to the rejuvenation of construction as being a lack of vision by councils and local planning authorities to make use of the green belt. Where development has been allowed here, some UK villages have seen their size swell, with the fringes of the village widened beyond their perimeters, to accommodate new-build. Does sacrificing the green belt now outweigh the potential for regeneration and development?
Often new developments, while being laudable for their creation of new homes, are not getting to the crux of the problem, which is to supply extra but also affordable housing. Simply building new houses, using green space, doesn’t address the housing crisis. The shortage of, for example, small family homes for first-time buyers, or bungalows for an aging rural population, which needs access to key amenities and services, is still a problem. And the alternatives to green belt development are also far from satisfactory – to allow more city centre developments. These tend to be of a type that best suits the developer – large town houses or apartment blocks – to maximise land usage and profitability and that do not respond to the dynamic needs of the modern-day housing market.
The impact of declining British industry offers another possible solution, with building on brownfield sites a potentially viable way forward. Land termed ‘brownfield’ (or Previously Developed Land, PDL) has been used in the past for industrial purposes. These sites are considered for the redevelopment of not only housing and commercial buildings, but also as open spaces for recreation, conservation, woodland and other community areas. Since 2010 the Government has taken a number of steps to ensure brownfield land is prioritised for new housing development, which resulted in exceeding a target (set in 2008) of building over 60% of new houses on brownfield sites. So, if this land can be cleared when contaminated with pollutants and freed up for development, especially within the perimeters of city limits, then the green belt can be better protected.
The problem remains that the UK needs more housing and we need it in the very near future. The requirement to strike equilibrium between supplying more residential properties whilst protecting the green belt has never been more important. The big question will be how long can we preserve the green belt when other options dwindle?
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