What is the Green Belt?
A Green Belt is an area of land protected from development. Green Belt land surrounds cities and towns to inhibit 'urban sprawl', prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another, preserve the countryside and the setting and character of historic towns, and assist in urban regeneration by promoting 'brownfield' development (development on derelict urban land).
Green Belt land is intended to be kept permanently open.
To designate a Green Belt, a local authority must prove why normal planning and development control policies would not be adequate to protect a town from urban sprawl.
Green Belt land is protected both by normal planning controls and an additional presumption against 'inappropriate development' within its boundaries.
The concept of the Green Belt was first mooted in 1935 by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee, which proposed providing "a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space".
This was taken up by the Government in 1955 in Circular 42/55, which codified Green Belt provisions and extended the principle beyond London.
In 1988, Planning Policy Guidance 2 was issued, which reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the principle of the Green Belt, and added a requirement to take account of sustainable development. This was replaced by PPG2 published in 1995 and subsequently amended in March 2001.
From January 2005 the Planning Policy Guidance notes began to be replaced by new-style Planning Policy Statements (PPS); this process is still on-going.
However, the Coalition government has announced plans to introduce a National Planning Policy Framework which will consolidate all policy statements, guidance notes and circulars into a single, concise framework. Several organisations and individuals were invited to put forward suggestions as to what form this new framework should take and a draft document is to be put out for public consultation later in 2011.
Few contest the need to check urban sprawl, so the main controversy surrounding the Green Belt is the extent to which it is being eroded by planning decisions.
PPG2 leaves local authorities some leeway in interpreting what is 'inappropriate development' - there are exemptions for buildings used for agricultural and forestry, for 'essential' leisure facilities, for cemeteries, for 'limited' renovation of existing buildings and for 'limited' infilling of settlements within the Green Belt.
Countryside campaigners have long accused local authorities and the Government of allowing excessive development in Green Belts, and accuse them of undermining the principle.
In December 2006, the government-commissioned Barker report said local authorities should consider allowing construction on green belt land.
The report, written by economist Kate Barker, said low-value agricultural land adjacent to towns and cities should not necessarily be classed as green belt. Building new houses in these areas would cut commuting time and be beneficial to the environment, the report said.
However, the Barker recommendations were rejected in the Planning White Paper of May 2007.
The Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS), which replaced Regional Planning Guidance (RPG) following the introduction of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, formed part of the statutory Development Plan and proposals for regional spatial strategies to review whether green belt areas were still justified attracted widespread concern.
Responding to a parliamentary question from Tory MP Bob Neill in July 2009 regarding possible reductions in the present level of green belt protection, housing minister John Healey insisted that the level of protection would not be affected by any regional spatial strategy and that this was set out in National Planning Policy. However, he added that policies in regional spatial strategies "may recommend that, in a particular area, there should be a review of which areas should be designated as green belt."
The Coalition government elected in May 2010 made clear its commitment to "maintain the Green Belt" and to "create a new designation to protect green areas of particular importance to local communities".
Under the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 the existing regional spatial strategies and regional economic strategies were combined to create a single integrated regional strategy. These came into existence on 1 April 2010 for the eight English regions outside of London.
However, the Coalition has said it believes this centrally-driven approach to development is "bureaucratic and undemocratic" and it will therefore abolish regional strategies and return planning powers to councils and communities through the Localism Bill currently before Parliament.
The area of designated Green Belt land in England at 31st March 2011 was estimated at 1,639,540 hectares, about 13 per cent of the land area of England.
Between March 2010 and March 2011, boundary changes in three authorities - Enfield, Slough and Vale of White Horse - resulted in a small increase (less than 5 hectares) in the total area of Green Belt.
Over the longer term, since these statistics were first compiled for 1997, there has been an increase in the area of Green Belt after taking account of the re-designation of some Green Belt as part of the New Forest National Park in 2005.
There are 186 authorities that have designated Green Belt land within their boundaries.
Source: Department for Communities and Local Government - April 2011
"We will maintain protection for the Green Belt and the environment - as we are committed to sustainable growth."
Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles - March 2011
"We will create a new designation to give additional protection to green areas of particular importance to local communities and maintain strong protection for green belt."
Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman - March 2011