Illustration: Michal Bednarski
The concept of implementing a policy to prevent urban sprawl goes back a long way, to the establishment of the first green belts in the 1950s. Today, England's green belts cover more than 4 million acres (1.6m ha), or around 13% of the country's land mass.
That the policy has lasted so long is testament to the fact that it has been very effective. It has provided strict boundaries and undoubtedly protected swathes of open countryside from development, something that is clearly appreciated by town planners and the public alike. However, the policy has now reached its sell-by date.
The UK's desperate need for new housing cannot all be accommodated on brownfield sites, or indeed, on greenfield sites outside the green belt. From an environmental and practical perspective they should be located close to existing infrastructure – otherwise all you are doing is leapfrogging the green belt and forcing people into long commutes, mostly by car, which flies in the face of climate change, air quality and zero-carbon commitments.
"The primary function of the green belt is to prevent urban sprawl ... But should that really be the focus?"
At the moment, the primary function of the green belt is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open, but should that really be the focus? What if, instead, it concentrated on its function as an asset for the communities it serves: providing access to green infrastructure and protecting and enhancing biodiversity, while at the same time recognising the existing economic requirement for urban growth?
Such an initiative would have to be led by central government, as key passages of the National Planning Policy Framework would have to be redrafted. However, it would also have to involve all stakeholders: environmental charities, local authorities, infrastructure providers, developers, utilities, planners and local communities. It would be a complex exercise but ultimately worthwhile – both economically and environmentally – as the current unstructured approach is gradually eroding and damaging these protected areas.
This is a thorny political challenge. However, local authorities in Cambridge have proved it can be done, successfully removing significant areas of land from the green belt to accommodate growth, and also improving access to green infrastructure and working with communities.
As Cambridge demonstrates, it is perfectly possible to release land for development and enhance environmental and social outcomes. All it takes is a more intelligent approach to land management – plus a healthy dose of political leadership.
John Lockhart FRICS is chairman of Corby-based environmental planning and forestry consultant Lockhart Garratt