Expanding cities: Areas most at risk of green belt building expansion

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With green belt land taking up just 13% of England, and as the housing crisis continues – it’s highly important we preserve our limited green spaces. Recent reports suggest that green belt expansion is becoming increasingly common, particularly in areas with surging population growth. 

The NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) states that: “The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open”. However, as population growth and the housing shortage continues, is it inevitable that green belt spaces will become prime building hotspots?  

Between 2009 and 2018, nearly 65,000 new homes were approved on green belt land, with 37% approved on greenfield sites. These areas are vital in the preservation of species and highly important for the wellbeing of many city and town residents. 

To analyse the towns and cities most at risk of green belt expansion, we looked at the areas with the fastest population growth across the UK over the last 10 years as well as areas with the most greenbelt space which is highly likely to be exploited.

 Key Findings:

  • The area most at risk of building expansion into green belt spaces is Guildford – the population has increased by 9.63% over the last 10 years, and the green belt space consists of 22,636 hectares. The number of houses built in this area in the last 10 years has also increased by 80%. 
  • This is closely followed by Chorley, Thurrock and Epping Forest.

Key findings:

    • The latest house building report shows that in the financial year ending March 2022, there were 204,530 house builds completed in the UK.
    • The building of homes across the UK has increased astronomically over the past 10 years – particularly as the UK faces house shortage issues. 
  • The area with the highest house-building rate over the past 10 years is Maldon, Essex, which has experienced a 1600% increase in homes built. 
  • This is followed by areas of the North: Harrogate, Preston, Salford and Clackmannanshire, Scotland.
  • At the other end of the scale, Gosport (-97.50%), Richmond upon Thames(-90.91%) and Lewisham (-88.15%) have all seen a mass decrease in the number of homes built in the past 10 years

How does building on green belts impact areas?

Urban green spaces such as gardens, parks and woodlands provide many benefits to human populations and are a vital habitat for wildlife. They enhance the health and wellbeing of people living and working in cities and towns and their removal can be detrimental to mental and physical health. Green belt areas are particularly important for children – who may not have access to a garden. They provide an opportunity for them to see wildlife and gain exposure to the outdoors. Construction work in green areas can also cause unwanted noise and pollution issues for local residents.

How does building on green belts impact wildlife?

Wildlife expert and Director of Ark Wildlife Sean McMenemy says: 

“Construction work can affect the environment in a number of different ways, from threatening wildlife habitats to polluting the surroundings with industrial waste. Construction practices in green belt areas contribute to the removal of natural habitats. This affects the diversity of individual species and prevents the occupation of a wider range of habitats. This is particularly important to address in green belt spaces which are designed to preserve wildlife habitats and stop urban over-expansion. 

Once the green belt is breached what’s to stop the onward march of development into ever greater natural space? Wildlife is directly affected by development but breaching or building on green space further fragments wildlife populations and creates damage far beyond ‘this pond’ or ‘that hedgerow’. It disrupts the whole fabric of the connected nature pathways, which are already under immense pressure”

How can you find out more about greenbelt expansion?

  • If a planning application has been submitted, you can find the full details via the Gov.uk website.
  • Alternatively, your local council website will have a list of its planning applications.

What is the industry doing to avoid building on greenbelt areas?

  • Prioritising and redeveloping brownfield sites, and previously developed land areas that may have been contaminated or abandoned. 
  • Focusing more generally on building more sustainable and environmentally-friendly buildings.
  • Encouraging building upwards rather than expanding wide, for example, building flats and three-storey houses.
  • Engaging with local communities to better understand their concerns and priorities regarding new development.