The green belt myth: can developers change misconceptions?

The green belt conjures up a certain image to the public; think chocolate box villages and ancient woodland. But is this always the reality? Much of England’s Green Belt land is privately owned and made up of a mix of land uses, including intensive farming, golf courses, stables / paddocks and even redundant military sites. This misconception lies at the heart of blocked developments and scrapped plan, and it supports anti-development campaigns, despite the ever growing demand for new housing in the UK’s most economically productive cities.  

Both commentators and policymakers make persuasive arguments for green belt reform nationally, most notably in the broadsheets and through Government findings. Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Housing, recently went as far to say that councils should stop “ducking difficult decisions” and take a long term approach to green belt development. However, if developers are ever going to succeed in unlocking the green belt, then they need to make a concerted effort to change these misconceptions and counter the existing narrative at a local and regional level.

Most people understand the rationale behind building more housing in places where people want to live in the UK. However, the general support of reform unsurprisingly diminishes at a regional and local level. As pressure ultimately lies on local councils, the influence of regional press is critical in swaying planning applications.

What’s really interesting is the language used to describe the green belt at a local level in the regional press. Commonly occurring words include ‘save’, ‘last resort’ and ‘community’; emotive terminology that conjures an immediate reaction, and regional coverage is largely focused on local community activism. It’s hard to find the views of those stakeholders that are either apathetic or supportive of green belt reform.

Articles often describe the quantity of houses to be built as in the ‘thousands’ with attention drawn to potential infrastructure strains. In addition, regional media often references alternative arbitrarily suggested brownfield sites and even other green belt sites. There is also a recurring doubt over the criteria of ‘exceptional circumstances’ currently required to develop in the green belt.

So, what can developers do to address this misconception and change the regional narrative?

  1. Have a voice in the regional media that uses the right language to counter balance the argument and prove the ‘exceptional circumstances’ needed to secure green belt allocations. This is vital to build stronger, more coherent arguments and foster better relationships with local press.
  2. Come together with the rest of the property industry to draw the national debate into the regional. As part of this, question how local councils will meet housing quotas without green belt reform.
  3. Demonstrate an understanding of specific local markets via communications with local and regional press. Knowing and appreciating how challenges facing one city or region are different to those in another is important to build credibility for developers and abate misconceptions.
  4. Investment in winning the support of local stakeholders and apathetic bystanders (local renters, residents and business community) through organised campaigns. Engaging with these key demographics will ensure an alternative voice is heard and support council planning committees to make informed and balanced decisions on green belt developments, as well as providing considerable ballast to their arguments in local and regional press.

The national narrative around the green belt is slowly changing and the policy is beginning to be seen as outdated, constrictive and in desperate need of reform. But it’s only by dispelling the green belt myth at a regional level that developers can ride the growing wave of demand for housing.