Philip Barnes – Blog



 Previous posts have set down my views on the need for pragmatism when considering the economic, social or environmental value of some of our provincial green belts. A clear distinction has always been drawn with the London Green Belt – partly reflecting my limited detailed knowledge of it.
A key issue has been whether a “no development” stranglehold around cities like Newcastle/Gateshead best meets economic and social objectives. For example the OECD (presumably unaware of Green Belt policy) concluded in 2010 that “space to grow” is one of Newcastle’s key economic advantages over other competitor cities. To the west it’s about 70 miles to Carlisle and to the north it’s 150 miles to Edinburgh. Little did OECD know that a Green Belt boundary hard up to urban edge currently prevents new development to address population growth and economic ambition.
It will take 1,750 years to concrete the Newcastle segment of the Green Belt at current rates of development. If this segment were a tennis court then the controversial Core Strategy draft proposals for a much needed 6000 new units in the Green Belt extension would measure some 80cms x 80cms if they were all in one place – which they are not. The 2014 Public Examination will determine whether 6000 is anywhere near enough.
Turning to the London Green Belt a few weeks ago I completed the London Revolution cycle ride which circumnavigated London – generally all within the Green Belt. It provided a superb two day snapshot of the Green Belt starting in Docklands then from the Lea Valley across the North Downs then southwards via the Chilterns towards Windsor. The second day involved cycling along the South Downs and then northwards via Box Hill and Crystal Palace back to Peruvian Wharf
The overriding perspective was of the incredible value of the Green Belt. Often it felt like cycling through deep countryside despite being only 10 or so miles from the centre of one of the world’s greatest cities. An amazing contrast to more sprawling cities such as Los Angeles, Tokyo or Cairo.
 A second impression was the quality and attractiveness of the settlements and the landscape. You were never pedalling long before passing through a quintessential English village or beautiful rolling pastures. A real sense of a valued and cared for landscape. That said the M25 and the arterial motorways never seemed to be too far away!
Whilst a two day cycling ride is no substitute for a proper spatial analysis it did seem that many, if not most, of the many settlements we passed through did have the capability of accommodating at least fifty or a hundred or more dwellings without undue conflict with the 5 famous purposes of including land within a Green Belt. Particularly given the topography and landscape enclosure of much of the route. It also seemed that many of the settlements had enjoyed reasonably regular periods of growth until the 1960s or 70s but that more recent development, on the urban edge, was much rarer. Some felt, frankly, as though they had been preserved in aspic and were lacking vibrancy.
I was left with a sense that many settlements do have easy potential to take some limited growth to meet local housing needs but that Green Belt policy appears to have unnecessarily and inflexibly drawn up the drawbridge. I was also left with a sense, in some places, that most people around the place appeared to be over 50 or 60. Perhaps the beneficiaries of earlier episodes of development.
Going back to the 5 purposes of including land within Green Belt my cycle-by site visit left the impression that the London Green Belt has undoubtedly been incredibly valuable in preventing urban sprawl, promoting urban regeneration, protecting the setting of historic towns and safeguarding the countryside from encroachment. It has also clearly been successful in preventing the coalescence of settlements. Indeed in many places some limited further development would appear to neither cause coalescence nor prejudice any of the other 4 Green Belt purposes.
That said I would repeat again that my initial view based on a cycle ride needs to be seen for what it is – a snapshot opinion without detailed research. An opinion based on a pretty comprehensive on the ground look however.

Author: philipbarnesblog

Group Land and Planning Director for Barratt Developments PLC. FRTPI, FRICS


  1. Sounds like a great cycle ride. You perhaps enjoyed it so much that you overlooked the importance of outdoor recreation in the countryside as one of the functions of green belt. But I suspect much of that green belt area around London is a virtual ‘no-go area’. It would be interesting to see what proportion was covered with a CROW Act access land designation.
    I was reminded of a recent conversation with a sage planning QC (no name). He stressed the legal importance and meaning of the word ‘Belt’. Perhaps not an unexpected commment from a lawyer – but a casual look at the map of English green belts shows a wide variety of form. Many have no semblance to a ‘belt’ whatsoever – and perhaps the word itself has become anachronistic.
    The evolution of Green Belts in Scotland have been influenced by Scandanavian practice – where they have ‘Grun Structur’ – Green Structure. Geddes’s (supposed) attraction to ‘green wedges’ has possibly helped. And this years candidate for RTPI Excellence in Rural Planning & Winner of last year’s most prestigious Scottish Planning Award – the Central Scotland Greenspace Project – takes this urban fringe planning to a new level. The matrix of green space areas is increasinbly being planned as functional space – the genuine green lungs around our major cities – used by all, accessible to all. Can’t help thinking the Land Reform Act 2003 brought in by the Scottish Parliament – which created a reponsible right of access to all land & a statutory approach to path creation (60,000km since 2003) has helped immensely.
    The irony is that this has probably assisted with housing land allocation. The 4 Strategic Plans for out 4 metropolitan areas carry a housing requirement for over 300,000 houses – and our Local Development Plans are busy rolling out the allocation. Yes it will be a tussle – but certainly Aberdeen & Edinburgh (perhaps more haltingly) have recently risen to that challenge. Aberdeen has allocated land for more than 20,000 new homes all greenfield and largely former green belt.
    Where there’s a will there’s a way.
    Now on to procurement….

  2. Thanks Bob. Great comments and find myself agreeing with all of them. In England Tees Valley has pioneered Green Wedges rather than Green Belt creating easier access to open green land/infrastructure for all residents rather than just those lucky enough to live near the urban edge.

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