It’s meant to curb sprawl and give city dwellers the benefits of the country. But some feel it protects the rich, stops houses being built and encourages commuting
In January 1914, Aston Webb, architect of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the facade of Buckingham Palace and parts of Birmingham University, had a dream. He told the London Society, a group of architects and others concerned with the improvement of the capital, how he was transported a century forward to the year 2014, where he saw “a beautiful sylvan line practically all around London”, with “a certain amount of open spaces, pleasure grounds” set aside by “town planning schemes”. He called it a “green belt”.
As futuristic fantasies go, it was prescient. London is indeed surrounded by a green belt, as are 13 other urban areas in England and 10 in Scotland, zones that forbid new development, except, as the policy wording has it, in “very special circumstances”. They occupy 13% the total land area of England, compared with the 10% that is urbanised.
Almost anyone you talk to on the subject agrees that the green belt is one of the great successes of planning, anywhere in the world. It has prevented the interminable exurbia, the light smearing of development over landscape that you get in the United States and many other countries. But it also has costs. It stops cities expanding, which had previously done so for centuries. It contributes to the scarcity and cost of decent homes in large parts of the country. It encourages bizarre and wasteful patterns of commuting. It often fails in its original aim of providing accessible recreational space for city dwellers. It is enforced with a rigidity that makes little sense, except as a sign of mistrust. […]