Green belt building: British countryside

Given the UK’s housing crisis, should we start building on green belts?

In principle, few would argue with the merits of the concept of green belts. The aim was to ensure a ring of farmland, forestry and parks were preserved around British cities. We wanted to ensure urban sprawl didn’t slowly swallowing up our beloved countryside. It was 1935 when the Metropolitan Green Belt around London was first proposed. 20 years later, other cities around the UK were encouraged to follow suit. Today there are 55 green belts across the UK: 14 in England, 30 in Northern Ireland, 20 in Scotland and only one in Wales.

Green belts have several purposes. They prevent urban sprawl, but they also keep nearby towns separate from one another. Green belts help preserve the unique qualities of historic villages. They claim to boost urban regeneration by encouraging developers to make use of dis-used urban sites, known as brownfield sites.

We can all agree that it’s wonderful that our cities are surrounded by beautiful countryside into which we can escape on weekends. But green belts have been criticised for reducing the amount of land available on which to build. This is one factor increasing the cost of housing. With property prices climbing and homes in short supply, are green belts too much of a luxury?


So, what about brownfield sites then?

Usually brownfield land has previously been used for commercial or industrial purposes. Sometimes there are fears that the land is polluted or contaminated with industrial waste. Of course, these areas can be cleaned up and put to good use – but this can be complex and expensive. Sometimes contaminated brownfield land sits idle for years on end. Often the clean up costs more than what the property is worth to developers. Some critics believe that some developers are deliberately sitting on “more challenging” brownfield sites waiting for green belt land to open up.


Building on green belts: a better solution to using brownfield sites?

It makes sense to build on brownfield sites , but it’s not always straight-forward.

What is involved with building on brownfield sites?

Before any brownfield sites can be redeveloped, an experienced environmentalist consultants must assess them first. They test the soil, groundwater and surface water for hazardous compounds and identify the risks and liabilities that need addressing. Development plans must stick to strict environmental regulations. Special licenses must be obtained, which can become too great an obstacle for developers to overcome.

If developers do get past this stage, the clean-up stage comes next, which is known as remediation. Remediation is the process of removing contaminants from the site. Once this is done, redevelopment can begin. Fortunately, evolving technologies are making the remediation process more cost effective. As the housing crisis worsens and urban land becomes more scarce and valuable, are brownfield sites the answer?


Should we start building on green belts?

The recently issued Housing White Paper says that green belt land can only be built on “in exceptional circumstances”. However, the paper doesn’t spell those circumstances out. 

Arguments in favour of green-belt building include:

  • The land isn’t being preserved for any aesthetic or ecological virtue. Most green belt land is privately owned, and is just farm and scrub land.
  • Green belts haven’t actually halted urban growth, it’s just moved it to other rural areas, creating a commuter belt.
  • Inequality is being fuelled by green belts, particularly in cities like Oxford and London. House prices are being driven up, turning homes into highly-prized assets. 
  • There is also a misconception in Britain that about half of the country has been built on. That’s not even close to being true. In England, only 10.6% of the country has been built upon. In the UK as a whole, it’s only 6.85%. 

If you enjoy the great outdoors, the value of green belt land is obvious. But it’s not as simple as saying “urban regeneration is good, green belt building is bad’. It’s a complex web. Let’s hope that as technologies improve and the debate matures, we can strike the right balance.


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