The Liverpool View – Should we loosen our green belts?

greenbelt-1wDr John Sturzaker is a Lecturer in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Geography and Planning

“The green belts are probably the only part of the planning system that most people have heard of, and there is a strong attachment to them.

This is reflected in the positions of the three mainstream political parties, with all of them pledging to preserve green belts – and the coalition Government claiming to have changed planning guidance to give them more protection than under Labour.

So how big are the green belts?

They are estimated to cover more than 13% of the land in England, and the green belt in the North West of England is more than 1,000 square miles in area. Much of this land plays an arguably important role in separating the cities of Liverpool and Manchester becoming one giant conurbation, but what is more surprising is that the green belt extends, for example, along the length of the Sefton coast so that land to the north of Southport is included within it. Is that what was intended when Green Belts were set up more than 50 years ago?

Local Authorities have been able to introduce green belts since the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, and in 1955 were encouraged to do so by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, because of the importance of “checking the unrestricted sprawl of the built-up areas, and of safeguarding the surrounding countryside against further encroachment”.

”So whilst green belts might be working well in limiting the growth of towns and cities, they are perhaps working less well in providing access to high quality green space for those who live in those towns and cities”
Measured against that criterion, green belts appear to have worked – less than 10% of land in England is developed – i.e. built upon with houses, factories, roads, etc. Interestingly, surveys show that most people think this figure is much higher (more than half of people think it is 50% or more), which probably reflects the fact that most of us live and work in towns and cities so our everyday experience is dominated by the urban.

At the same time, most people think that the purpose of green belts is not to stop urban sprawl, but instead to protect the environment and wildlife. How effective are Green Belts against these criteria?

The evidence is more mixed – 7% of green belt land, for example, is developed (remembering that for England as a whole it’s only 10%), which suggests that it is not necessarily as “green” as we might expect. The Government’s nature watchdog Natural England has said that “Much green belt land is of uninspiring quality”.

So whilst green belts might be working well in limiting the growth of towns and cities, they are perhaps working less well in providing access to high quality green space for those who live in those towns and cities – something that is commonly understood to be good for our mental and physical wellbeing.

So are there any alternatives?

One might be to think, instead of green belts, of Green Wedges or Green Ways – areas of land that run through, rather than around, our urban areas. We could plan to link our existing green spaces, such as the tremendously well-used public parks in Liverpool, with new provision to link them together.Boston’s “Emerald Necklace”, a seven mile long linear park, is one famous example of this kind of approach.

Creating new parks might be one alternative use for the large areas of vacant land created by the (now abandoned) Housing Market Renewal programme, as part of which many houses in the inner-city of Liverpool and other northern towns and cities were demolished.

”A Green Wedge might be more effective in allowing us to access green space on a regular basis”
Parks and other green spaces within our cities are more easily accessible than the green belt or other areas of land beyond the urban area – particularly for people without a car. So a Green Wedge might be more effective in allowing us to access green space on a regular basis, and the difference in house prices between, say, Toxteth and Blundellsands suggests that turning derelict inner city land into green space and turning some green belt land into housing might make economic sense too.

But will any politician be brave enough to promote a more nuanced approach?

In opinion polls, up to 85% of people support green belts, which suggests not. Mind you, 67% of people opposed the sell-off of Royal Mail, so opinion polls don’t tell us everything!

Why not come along to the Camp and Furnace and have your say? Or follow the debate on Twitter (@livuniheseltine and #policyprov) if you can’t make it in person.”

Policy Provocations’ Should we loosen our green belts? debate takes place at the Camp and Furnace on Wednesday 13 November and features Naomi Luhde-Thompson, Planning and Policy Advisor, Friends of the Earth; Professor Ian Wray, Trustee, Town & Country Planning Association and Visiting Professor, University of Liverpool; Dave Rudlin, Director, URBED (Urbanism Environment and Design) Trust and Alex Morton, Head of Housing, Planning and Urban Policy, Policy Exchange.

For more information,and to book (free) tickets, visit:


2 thoughts on “The Liverpool View – Should we loosen our green belts?

  1. Kiron Reid

    I agree with nearly all that John McGarry has said. West Lancashire and the Lancashire coastal plain are still hugely important agricultural areas.

    John Sturzaker I think makes two really important points here. One is about green corridors and green wedges. Liverpool has wonderful suburban and inner city Victorian parks but the links between them are often poor, and the access for non car driving residents not great (except Sefton / Princes / Greenbank). In fact access for car drivers isn’t great either as obviously parking wasn’t thought of at the time.

    The second is about access to the countryside. I think Sefton is probably the worst semi-rural borough in the country. It seems to largely fail to invest in rights of way and access – under whatever political control. I grew up in Hightown near Formby in the middle of the Liverpool green belt, where my family live. With the exception of restoration and conservation of the coastal areas, and the excellent coastal path, there is no access to the countryside. That is the same for many of the towns – there are no or few links to the country hinterland. I suspect complacent due to a borough boundary a few miles inland, Sefton has never worked with farmers to secure routes. So there is little access to the countryside that surrounds the residential areas. This has been a neglected issue for 40 years.

    I was suspicious that the debate last night had been organised in a way that was biased in favour of development on the green belt. I think the discussion was steered that way, but on the other hand the range of speakers provided balance (overall). It reminded me that a one size fits all approach is not always best and that some flexibility is needed – although I remain passionately committed to the green belt and in favour of urban regeneration.

  2. John McGarry

    Loosen the Greebelt? For me these stretches are there not just to prevent urban sprawl or to be accessible (or not) for health and well being: They often consist of high grade agricultural land so we can help produce our own food; they also support wildlife and act as wildlife corridors. They should be fully protected. Sadly, there has been a massive increase nationally in applications for planning permission on Greenbelt since this government changed the planning framework, with adjustments in favour of builders and pressures on local governent to include greenbelt for housing in their Local Plans. Perversely, in a catch 22, no win situation CPRE: Sefton has been forced to support SEFTON council’s Local Plan which includes much Greenbelt for housing (If the Council don’t have an approved plan by 2015, developers will probably be able to build on any greenbelt of their choice in the borough). So the government is already loosening Greenbelt for you on your doorstep anyway, so it can build thousands of largely unaffordable houses in the name of growth. All done in a very covert way against people’s wishes and ignoring localism (you are a NIMBY if you object). Brownfield sites further afield (say in West Lancs) can’t be considered. The scandal is that there is sufficient Brownfield land in the UK for 1.6 million new homes.

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