The future of England’s Green Belts has been in the news again. Our colleagues over at the Campaign to Protect Rural England have published a map of Green Belts under threat. Housing minister Grant Shapps has re-iterated the Government’s commitment to protect the Green Belt.
Green Belt is a long-established and popular policy, but what is it for?
It’s important to understand that Green Belt is a planning policy, not a nature conservation policy. Not every town or city has one (Hull, Leicester and Plymouth are good examples of ones that don’t), and their main purpose is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land around urban areas permanently open.
The policy does, and always has, allowed for planning authorities to amend Green Belt boundaries in ‘exceptional’ circumstances. They do this as part of their local plan review, taking into account long-term development needs. Typically the local planning authority will look 10 to 15 years ahead or even longer, thinking about the need for housing and business land over that period, and whether it can all be accommodated in the urban area. The RSPB recognises that this is part of the normal planning process, and the examination of the local plan is the best arena to debate whether this is appropriate in any area.
Nature conservation is not one of the official purposes of Green Belt, but Green Belt, by protecting the countryside, can make a valuable incidental contribution to the protection of wildlife habitat. As Green Belts are by definition close to urban areas, they can also be important for bringing people close to nature. National policy encourages local planning authorities to plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt, including by retaining and enhancing landscapes, visual amenity and biodiversity.
Natural England and CPRE published a very helpful report a couple of years ago which showed that only 5.5% of the area of Green Belts is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and only 0.5% as a Local Nature Reserve (although that was one-third of all LNRs). Overall there are fewer SSSIs, and they are in slightly poorer condition than in the countryside as a whole. On the other hand, some bird species of conservation concern appear to be doing better in the Green Belt, such as mistle thrush, song thrush and starling.
I was interested to compare a map of England’s twelve new Nature Improvement Areas with CPRE’s map of 14 Green Belts. As far as I can tell (and I don’t have access to detailed boundaries), there is significant overlap with the Dearne Valley Green Heart NIA (West Yorkshire GB), the Greater Thames Marshes (Metropolitan GB) and Wild Purbeck (Dorset GB). I can also see that much of the New Forest and the internationally important Sefton Coast are Green Belt. On the other hand, the Birmingham and Black Country NIA appears to be largely within the inner boundary of the West Midlands GB.
So, nature may not be the raison d’être of Green Belts, but Green Belts can do a great deal for nature.