The Greenbelt has been a long protected element of the British countryside, but with the current housing shortage is it time to consider relaxing the rules?The rapid growth of London during the 1930s was, for many, a cause of concern. By 1939 8.6 million people were squeezed into an area around 35% smaller than the footprint of London today. Overcrowding meant that living conditions were often extremely poor and, as concerns grew, the Greater London Planning Committee proposed the creation of a Greenbelt, preserving areas surrounding London from future development.
Perhaps ironically, the Greenbelt, which is broadly unchanged since it was drawn up in the years immediately after the Second World War, represented a barrier to growth for many British cities. Between 1939 and the late 1980s this was less of a problem as the population of London fell and similar falls were recorded by most British cities. However, fast forward to today and the growth in population has meant that cities are once again struggling to keep up with housing demand. London has seen its population once again pass 8.6 million, 76 years after it previously first reached this figure. While the population of many cities are still below where they were on the eve of the Second World War, they have again begun to grow. As urban populations approach the levels they reached when the Greenbelt was drawn up, we need to ensure it doesn’t become an ever tightening collar on urban growth.
Greenbelt comes in all shapes and sizes. It encompasses both Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and low density industrial land. Given it was drawn up over 50 years ago maybe it is time to review the definition of Greenbelt land? Building homes close to where people work is one of the most sustainable places to build. While new garden cities have been suggested as a potential solution to the question of supply, allowing growth on the city fringe could also serve to organically add significant numbers of homes close to existing centres of employment.
There are almost 80 railway stations in the Greenbelt which offer excellent transport links. Given much of the railway network was built by the Victorians, the areas surrounding stations, even those in the Greenbelt, have in many cases already been developed to some degree. These are places which sit in ‘Greenwash’, areas of developed land which in local plans fall completely into the Greenbelt. Promoting development in areas within walking distance of those train stations could have the potential to accommodate around half a million new homes. Over half of these homes could be built on sites in London and the South East, within easy reach of employment markets, the places where demand for homes is greatest. Not everyone will agree but re-thinking the Greenbelt is definitely food for thought.