Should we build on the Green Belt?

3 Mar 2016

Policy area: Planning

Following a BPF Great Debate on whether or not building on the Green Belt is necessary in order to solve the housing crisis, Lizzie Lambert explores the core arguments on either side of the debate.

The Green Belt: vital preserve of our green and pleasant land, or pesky nuisance hindering much-needed new housing development?

That was the basis of the first of the BPF Great Debates – a series of events that will seek to get under the skin of some of the most divisive issues affecting the real estate industry.

Held in the traditional debate style, the motion at the inaugural event was "This House believes that the only way to respond to the housing crisis is to build on the Green Belt." Hot on the heels of a report by Shelter and Quod calling for the next Mayor of London to consider building on these sacrosanct areas of land, the debate was particularly timely. 

The arguments in favour of the motion centered around the myth that the Green Belt is a bucolic idyll full of lush fields. CityMetric’s Jonn Elledge branded the Green Belt “one the most successful marketing campaigns ever”, and pointed out that there are in fact some incredibly unattractive parts, citing a particularly unappealing potato farm in Romford as one such example. (For more examples of less than delightful Green Belt land, this Inside Housing article is very good.)

Further arguments considered that, while brownfield development is welcome, most viable sites are already in development, and those that aren’t often have very good reasons not to be. For example, they may be flood plains, or contain contaminated land.

Brownfield land formed a key part of the argument against the motion, with Paul Miner from CPRE arguing that pushing for brownfield development has a social value, and that bringing derelict sites back into use has a much more positive impact on society than building on greenfield land does. He quoted compelling stats from an Ipsos MORI poll conducted last year, which showed that 65% of the population wants Green Belt protection to continue.

Comments from the floor helped establish why the Green Belt actually exists. There are five reasons that the government has provided for its pledge to protect the Green Belt, the most persuasive of which is the desire to stop urban sprawl. Examples of cities such as Copenhagen, which has allowed corridors of development separated by greenfield land, were used to counter this argument.

Other audience commentators argued (with help from Joni Mitchell) that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” The fear that, once we start building on the Green Belt, we won’t ever be able to get it back is a powerful argument for protectionists, and one that has the ear of government.

Nevertheless, the debate came to a close with a vote – 31 in favour of the motion, and nine against it.

With all London Mayoral candidates pledging to protect the Green Belt, and a government in place that has pledged to protect it over the course of this parliament, it looks like the Green Belt is safe for now.


Many thanks to our hosts Weber Shandwick, and to our excellent speakers Jonn Elledge of CityMetric, Ben Harrison of Centre for Cities, Ian Harvey of Civic Voice, and Paul Miner of CPRE.