Talk to people about the green belt and many will lament the loss of England’s green and pleasant land disappearing under ugly new build housing developments.
That, or they’ll explain to you just how these areas are single-handedly causing all the country’s housing woes by preventing new homes from being built.
But new government figures now suggest that the picture may not be as black and white as we once thought – and while parts of the green built are disappearing, it’s not flats and houses that are to blame.
For the first time, the Government has published detailed development breakdowns for green belts – protected areas surrounding towns and cities – for 185 local authority areas.
In some areas, the land is getting snapped up for housing – nearly half a million homes have been given the go-ahead to be built in these areas since 2013.
But the Government’s new figures have revealed just how little of an impact this is having when compared to other developments on the sites – with a minuscule 0.28 per cent of green belt being taken up by residential housing and flats.
Green belt development has halved in one year, from four per cent to two per cent in 2017/18
Some 4.6 per cent is taken up by transport and utilities, according to analysis of the figures by modular homes developer Project Etopia.
This means that while we may see housing as the main threat to the green belt, transport and utility developments have in fact taken up 16 times more space.
Even where building on the belt is prevalent, new homes take up just a tiny fraction of the total development.
For example, Manchester has developed a quarter of its green belt. Despite this, the proportion given over to residential housing is just 0.1 per cent.
A huge chunk of the city’s green belt, 21.5 per cent, is occupied by transport and utilities, more than double any other area.
On a national level the average proportion of green belt already developed per local authority sits at around 8.3 per cent.
Mid-Sussex, which has the highest proportion of housing built on green belt, still has a meager 2.7 per cent of green belt development taken up by housing.
In terms of overall development, high up the list is Wolverhampton, which has developed 27.1 per cent of its green belt, just 0.4 per cent of which is residential housing.
This is followed by Blackpool, which has developed just under a quarter of its 2.1 per cent green belt, of which just 0.1 per cent is residential, and 18.4 per cent of which is set aside for community services.
Joseph Daniels, chief executive of Project Etopia, said: ‘The country faces a huge dilemma when it comes to where it builds the huge backlog of homes it needs but the most major threats to green belt are not presented by residential developments.
‘What is surprising is the range in outcomes nationally. Different areas are resorting to developing the green belt to hugely varying degrees.’
Why does development vary so much across the country?
Green belt areas can only be built on if councils grant planning permission directly or remove the land’s official status.
According to a report last year, between 2011 and 2017 nearly 4,900 hectares of green belt lost their protected status – the equivalent of a city the size of Middlesbrough.
The proportion of green belt taken up by housing across England is just 0.28 per cent
Since 2016 however, the government has encouraged ‘swap’ schemes, wherein in order to meet housing targets, land is freed up and swapped for separate areas of land, which then themselves become protected. At the moment, this only applies to brownfield sites.
But a glance at the Government’s new figures show just how much local authorities have varied in their willingness to surrender portions of their protected land.
Rebecca Pullinger, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: ‘There often seems to be a blame game on who is really in charge of deciding whether or not to build on, or release green belt land for development.
‘Councils often feel like they have to release green belt to get past government planning inspectors, while Government says that planning is locally led and it is up to councils to determine whether or not to do so.’
Liz Truss says a million homes should be built on the green belt
Would building more homes on the green belt help to solve the housing crisis?
While many have suggested building homes on the green belt as a solution to Britain’s chronic housing shortage, this isn’t likely to become Government policy any time soon.
Both of the current candidates for Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, are nominally pro-green belt.
The same can’t be said however for all of the upper echelons of Government.
Last month Tory MP Liz Truss launched her failed leadership bid with a promise to build a million homes on the green belt around the capital.
‘We need to build a million homes on the London green belt near railway stations, and around other growing cities, specifically to allow the under-40s to be able to own their homes,’ she said.
‘We should allow villages to expand by four or five houses a year without having to go through the planning system, so people can afford to live locally.’
Campaigners on the other side of the fence argue that this could in fact exacerbate the problem by limiting the amount of affordable housing built.
Rebecca Pullinger, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: ‘Building on the green belt can push the countryside further away from our town and city centres, reduce its accessibility and fragment vital habitats for wildlife.
‘We need to build many more homes that people can afford to live in, but our research has shown that homes built in the green belt are simply not affordable.
‘Opening up the green belt will only serve to entrench this issue by enabling land hungry developments of executive housing.
‘Instead, we should prioritise building on suitable brownfield land. There is space on derelict land for more than one million new homes in places with existing infrastructure and services such as public transport and jobs, and, with new sites coming forward all of the time, this renewable resource could continue to provide a steady pipeline of new housing going forward.’
Steve Turner, from the House Builders Federation, said: ‘The amount of land designated as green belt has been increasing and it is right that we protect and preserve our natural environment for future generations.
‘Local authorities also have a responsibility to ensure enough land is available to build the number of homes the people in their area need.
‘They have the ability to protect green belt, not all of which is beautiful, or develop it to protect other non-green belt land that their communities may value more.
‘Local authorities need to ensure they are balancing these responsibilities in a way that best meets the needs of their communities.
‘It is up to local authorities to allocate enough land in their areas to develop the number of homes their local plan identifies their communities need.’
The full data sets by local authority can be found on the Government’s website here.