Green Belt purposes and the National Planning Policy Framework

The Green Belt is intended to check further growth of large built up areas (sprawl), to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another, and to preserve the special character of towns. Inside a Green Belt, approval should neither be given, except in very special circumstances, for the construction of new buildings, or for the change of use of existing buildings, nor for purposes other than agriculture, sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds, or other uses appropriate to a rural area.

Principles of the Green Belt

These are set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (Section 9 – paras 79 – 92). Green Belt exists to provide open space and to prevent urban sprawl: NPPF paragraph 79 states that: the fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and permanence. It is there neither to protect nor to enhance the landscape, although it may do that incidentally.

Threats to London’s Green Belt

London’s Green Belt is currently facing an unprecedented level of threat from development. See our commentary on why this is happening and why we feel urgent action is now needed to halt the further loss of London Green Belt Land.

Benefits of the Green Belt

The main benefit of protected land relates to the purpose of the protection, that is to say – avoiding urban sprawl.

  • Avoiding the costs of urban sprawl  Urban sprawl has multiple economic costs, including increased travel costs; decreased economic vitality of urban centres; increased tax burdens due to more expensive road and utility construction and maintenance; increased car use leading to higher air pollution and increased health care costs for diseases like asthma, and loss of productive farmland and natural lands that support tourism.
  • Two-thirds of all Green Belt land is in agricultural use; not surprising given its proximity to potential markets in the city. This is a vital economic resource for food security and soil protection.
What are the additional benefits provided by our Green Belt?

In recent years, the benefits are understood to extend further:

  • Recreation, sport, health Green Belt protection has ensured Londoners enjoy open land and countryside in and near the city. Many areas of Green Belt are country parks or playing fields, they support sport and recreation, tourism and health – including reducing stress by providing peaceful, breathing spaces and 9,899km of public rights of way
  • Eco-system benefits Different types of open land provide multiple eco-system benefits which include urban cooling, improved air quality, flood protection and carbon absorption (especially woodland areas), as well as local food production.
  • Future proofing As London grows into a higher density city, so more people come to rely on protected green spaces for the many benefits they provide. Land protection policy recognises that these protected lands may be, and in fact stipulates that they should be, enhanced to provide more benefits in future.

Where would London be if land protections were not in place? One way of looking into the future is to look back. As Andrew Motion, poet, said: “Since about 1940, the population of Los Angeles has grown at about the same rate as the population of London. Los Angeles is now so enormous that if you somehow managed to pick it up and plonk it down on England, it would extend from Brighton on the south coast to Cambridge in the north-east. That’s what happens if you don’t have a green belt.”

The London Green Belt Council believes that it is at times when cities grow that land protection policies are most critical. At these times ideally land protections should be strengthened rather than weakened or abandoned.