The Green Belt was created for five purposes but, in recent years, many more benefits have been identified, relating to the environment, ecology, the economy and public health.
The five original purposes are still just as important today.
- to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built up areas
- to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another
- to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment
- to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns
- to assist in urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
Why is sprawl bad? 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. This is a vital economic resource for food security and soil protection.
The list of newly-understood benefits is long and keeps growing. You can probably add some of your own! This list includes:
- 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. They also provide varied habitat to sustain wildlife.
- 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.
How is the Green Belt protected? Inside the Green Belt approval should not be given for the construction of new buildings or for the change of use of existing buildings, except in very special circumstances. Agriculture, sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds and other uses appropriate to a rural area have some exemptions. Green Belt boundaries can be changed only during a Local Plan revision process.
Where would London be if land protections were not in place? One way of looking into the future is to look back. The poet 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.”