The green belt, sustainability and England's housing crisis

by Charles Edward Goode

The UK is currently facing profound governance challenges with the conjunction of the deepening housing crisis, climate change and the crisis of Covid-19 and the associated lockdowns. Rather than these problems being mutually exclusive, they are deeply interwoven with Covid-19 exposing and exacerbating housing inequalities . These include the vast differences in experiences of lockdown between those living in houses with plenty of indoor and outdoor space, often older, owner-occupiers in rural/semi-rural locations, and those living in apartments, often younger renters in city centres or inner cities. Moreover, people being largely confined to their locality has demonstrated the importance of the 20-minute neighbourhood, or having shops and facilities within walking distance of one’s home, which could  play a significant role in reducing transport and carbon emissions. Household energy generation is also a significant contributor to carbonemissions, 40% in the UK, so the built environment has a key role to play in addressing climate change. The central theme of this article is therefore that integrated, strategic planning is vitally needed to address these pressing, interlocking problems.

The Situation Pre-Covid

The causes of England’s housing crisis are complex and contentious but it is widely agreed that it  centres upon affordability and rising house prices which has increasingly priced (younger) people out of homeownership and into private rented accommodation which tends to be poorer quality stock, has less security of tenure and is more expensive. There are arguably a range of causes for high house prices, from international/national factors, such as interest rates and the financialisation of housing through to locational characteristics, such as the quality of transport links, schools and environmental offer. The crisis interrelates with the climate change agenda because, with land and housing already being so expensive, there are limits on how much buyers and housebuilders are willing to spend on a property’s sustainability credentials, even after the experience of lockdown. Likewise, the ageing nature and often poor quality of housing stock, austerity and the lack of incentives or requirements for private landlords, social landlords and homeowners to improve the energy efficiency of houses, such as insulation, double glazing or solar panels,  limit the sustainability credentials of existing stock.

The Green Belt planning policy was introduced in the 1947 Planning Act and aims to prevent urban sprawl around England’s largest cities and also some historic cities. This policy, alongside the broader planning system, is often blamed for exacerbating England’s housing crisis by restricting housing development at the rural-urban fringe where demand for housing is the highest. In response, it is regularly argued that compact cities, dense brownfield development and protection of the countryside is vital to sustainability. Indeed, a fierce debate rages between those arguing that the Green Belt directs development further into the countryside with people then commuting back into cities (the ‘leapfrogging’ argument) whilst others argue that expanding existing urban areas through urban extensions is inherently unsustainable with the lack of public transport and facilities. Arguably the Green Belt does exacerbate the housing crisis although the evidence is complicated. Nonetheless, this dualism or polarised debate between solving the housing crisis and protecting the environment, or ‘economy’ versus ‘environment’ arguments, are unhelpful in productively moving the debate forwards. They miss the crucial role of planning, especially at a strategic, regional/sub-regional level, in addressing climate change. Indeed, many issues relating to planning, such as housing, transport, flooding and climate change, are inherently larger-than-local and strategic. It is also widely agreed that addressing affordability is key whilst ensuring sufficient services and facilities alongside development is vital to reduce car-dependency. Nonetheless, at the very point that planning is needed most, the system is weakend by many years of ideological attack, continuous tinkering and deregulation, under-resourcing and the lack of statutory strategic planning since 2010.

The Impact of Covid and Lockdown on Housing

Covid and lockdown has arguably made the debate over the Green Belt more complicated and challenging. Most people in urban areas being unable to access the Green Belt for their recreational needs for many months and the importance of domestic/outside space in housing alongside access to local greenspace, has challenged the case for high density development in existing urban areas which is needed alongside the Green Belt. Indeed, Place Alliance found that the greatest predictor of satisfaction during lockdown was access to private greenspace so, unsurprisingly, owner-occupiers and those with older property were the most satisfied with their homes and private and social tenants alongside those living in high-rise buildings the least satisfied. Greenery was the most important aspect of one’s neighbourhood with use of greenspace and local facilities peaking with a 5-minute walk and reducing sharply for longer than a 10-minute walk so Place Alliance actually recommended a 5-10-minute neighbourhood. There is now a strong case for perhaps more medium density development in existing urban areas and certainly for apartments with more domestic space and better access to outdoor space with there being rightly calls for minimum space standards in new developments, access to greenspace standards and a Healthy Homes Act. However, in order to still meet the housing needs of cities, lower density development in cities could exert more development pressure on the Green Belt, especially in cities which are tightly constrained by Green Belt, like Birmingham. Surveys suggest that households looking for more domestic, outdoor and local greenspace during lockdown have been moving to the countryside and rural-urban fringe also putting more pressure on the Green Belt. The lockdown has also shown the importance of local shops and services and the potential that the 20-minute neighbourhood has to reduce transport emissions. Nonetheless, vibrant and viable local centres to some extent depend upon density with Place Alliance recommending a minimum density of 50 dwellings per hectare (dpa) for all new development yet CPRE argue that the average density of developments in the Green Belt is currently 15 dwellings per hectare. The issues with ‘leapfrogging’ have also become less pressing with the  increase in home-working andreduced pressure on transport systems in and out of conurbations. However, if people, especially families, increasingly move out of urban areas, the central challenge remains of the future and function of city centres and inner cities and the potential consequences for the many people who cannot afford to move out of these areas. To some extent, there is tension between what the market or volume housebuilders desire, in terms of wanting to build homes with gardens on the rural-urban fringe, and the outcomes which the planning system tries to deliver including development in cities on brownfield land supported by adequate services and facilities to reduce carbon emissions. Nevertheless, what is clear is the importance of local greenspace, with CPRE finding that 46% of adults visited more greenspace since the start of lockdown and 67% believing that protection and enhancement of greenspace should be a priority.

Policy Responses: The Government’s Response

The Government’s policy response in the post-pandemic recovery  has involved further liberalisation and flexibility in planning through extensions to Permitted Development Rights (PDRs), Class E and the Planning White Paper. PDRs allow a building to change in use without the need for planning permission if basic conditions are met. There have been well-documented issues with PDRs, especially converting office buildings into residential use, including the sometimes chronic lack of domestic space, windows and natural light in apartments, very poor or no greenspace provided alongside development and the absence of a requirement to contribute to improving local services or facilities - known as ‘planning gain’. In September 2020, the Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, introduced minimum space standards for PDRs for residential projects but PDRs have  been extended since Covid with Class E allowing commercial, service and retail uses to be converted to residential. This has been widely criticised in the built environment profession as potentially radically altering local areas through losing valuable shops and facilities. Local authorities have  lost yet more power to manage and improve their local areas whilst facing the headwinds of recession and profound economic and changes accelerated by Covid. The Planning White Paper proposes radically simplifying and digitalising the planning system through dividing up the country into three ‘areas’, growth, protect and renewal, with the Green Belt enjoying continued protection. Although housing figures would be given directly by central to local Government, the Paper is largely silent on strategic planning and lacked firm commitments on climate change.

Policy Responses: Recommendations

Given the pressing and fundamental challenges outlined in this article, arguably well-resourced, strategic and proactive planning is desperately needed. Solving the housing crisis should still be a very important policy aspiration but the system needs to move away from being overly focused on housing numbers to focus on the type and quality of housing being delivered alongside broader issues around climate and environmental change. This article therefore proposes recommendations surrounding the key spatial scales in planning – national, regional and local:

1. National:

A national plan is needed to spatially map out the Government’s economic and transport investment priorities and how it intends to address climate and environmental change. This national plan would allocate broad areas of growth and restraint and review the overall purpose and spatial extent of the Green Belt through a national Green Belt conversation. The policy’s purpose should move to being more environmentally-focused with an overall sustainability purpose aiming to ensure that the Green Belt plays a more positive role in addressing climate change through river restoration, for example. Alongside this, there should be a social objective which aims to increase recreation access to the Green Belt and stipulates that housing development should serve a ‘social’ purpose, that is, a certain proportion of housing should be affordable or offer tenures which are particularly needed, like social housing or housing for the elderly. This would help address the key issue of the affordability of new homes built in the Green Belt. National space and environmental standards for new homes could be introduced to ensure a level playing field across the country.

2. Regional/sub-regional:

A strategic plan could address the key environmental issues related to climate change, such as flooding, whilst also developing an economic strategy and allocating locations of restraint and housing growth. The strategic plan would explore the various spatial blueprints or growth options available, such as new towns, urban extensions or urban densification, over a broader spatial canvas than would be possiblelocally, so could make sustainability-based decisions.

3. Local:

There could be more scope for local authorities to manage non-strategic decisions, like the design and tenure of housing, alongside councils becoming more involved in delivering housing themselves. Local authorities could lead the way and benchmark in terms of environmental standards for new homes. In larger cities, perhaps more medium density development is needed to support local services whilst still permitting access to high quality greenspace. The amount of homes suitable for families built in cities should increase, that is, larger apartments with more discrete spaces. In Birmingham in 2018, for example, 81% of new dwellings were flats, 81% of new dwellings built in Birmingham in 2018 were flats highlighting a lack of diversity in the tenures delivered. There should be more local partnership working and greater scope for local authorities to manage and shape their local centres to encourage more independent retailers and maybe the opportunity to introduce out-of-town parking levies etc. to help successfully deliver the 20-minute neighbourhood.


This article has set out some of the contentious and complex challenges involved in solving the housing crisis and addressing climate change, which have been exacerbated by Covid and lockdown. In many ways, climate change and the housing crisis are inherently ‘wicked problems’ – difficult to solve, long term and involving numerous policy areas and actors. However, the article has set out the power and potential of planning, especially strategic planning, to bring together various actors and interests in seeking to develop a vision for place. Strategic planning is vital in solving the housing crisis and climate change.