A bridge in the Avon Green Belt, Britain. Photo © David Hughes \ Fotolia.com.

I imagine the authors of the seminal work “Limits to Growth” are squirming somewhere as they see UK’s greenbelts threatened. The ‘development related’ threats became a hot topic in late 2012, and while the debate appears dormant in the news at the moment, I suspect it will resurface when updates on the proposed development activities are released.

Greenbelts cover about 13% of the total land area in the UK. The belts surround all of the major cities, placing 88% of the country’s population in an urban area surrounded by a greenbelt. The Telegraph has a great map of the greenbelt areas.

This map illustrates the nature of greenbelts: placed a good distance outside the city centre, they form a ring around a populous area, creating a clear divide between rural and urban populations. Notably, the greenbelts are not integrated into the city (though their connection with the city is important), but rather act as a barrier to increased urban density.

The UK’s greenbelts were designed to put limitations on growth and were first legislated through a Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) document published in 1995 (read it here). It is through this document that the UK government creates its greenbelt policies.

The PPG outlines five purposes of greenbelts:

  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns from merging with one another;
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • to assist with urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

Despite these goals, greenbelts in the UK are now being threatened by development. In November 2012, Conservative Minister Nick Boles created a controversy between the conservation and development communities when he announced that “We’re going to protect the green belt – but if people want to have housing for their kids they have got to accept we need to build more on some open land.”  

The open land he seeks is in the greenbelt area. Organizations such as Campaign to Protect Rural England disagree that there are not other sufficient options. Their website recommends brownfield sites (abandoned or undeveloped industrial or commercial areas) and pressuring housing companies to build on areas of land they own but are currently “sitting on.” They say this land has the opportunity to provide 280,000 new homes. Other options include making use of currently empty houses.

The greenbelt vs. development issue illustrates the false dichotomy between social and environmental needs. When we view greenbelts as only about protecting nature, a growing population and housing demand are likely to weigh more heavily on a government planning department. Greenbelts no doubt provide an excellent habitat and transitional area for many species, but, as the PPG outlines, they also provide a multitude of social benefits (leisure, food, clean air, climate change mitigation). Yet, against a need to put people in homes, I fear these points are often lost and the debate can only go one way.

Of course there are advocacy coalitions that will fight against these policies – but what about the population of London? Will they allow the government to renege on its commitment to greenbelts? Would you?

Julia is a graduate from the University of Waterloo's Environment and Resource Studies program, and is currently pursuing a Master's of Environmental Policy and Regulation at the London School of Economics in London, England.

Julia is passionate about understanding the needs of business, NGOs, and government in order to help to make environmental issues a priority and create impactful change. She is currently researching Ontario's low-carbon economy and working as a Policy Analyst at the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, and lives in Toronto. Julia attended the COP21 Conference with an international liberal youth organization. She tweets at @jrhawthorn. 

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