green belts

   Green belts, as defined by planning legislation, are tracts of land surrounding urban areas where new development is largely prohibited. The legislation seeks to prevent the continuing outward growth of the conurbations, in order to retain the contrast between town and country and give the towndweller easy access to the surrounding countryside. In the interwar period (1918–39) the major British townships expanded rapidly. Improved public transport and the increasing use of private motor cars encouraged both public and private developers to build new ‘overspill’ housing estates on greenfield sites. Around London, the extension of the rail networks into the surrounding countryside saw a massive increase in ‘dormitory’ neighbourhoods providing homes for commuters working in central London.
   Frederick J.Osborn, writing in Green Belt Cities (1964), set out the arguments for the ‘garden city’ idea, where townships of predetermined size would be surrounded by permanently protected green belts. Letchworth, in Hertfordshire, and Welwyn Garden City are early examples of moderate-sized towns in green surroundings. The concept of the green belt was enshrined in the Town and Country Planning Act (1947). Local planning authorities were henceforth given powers to prohibit new housing within designated green belts, unless it could be shown that the proposed development was limited to occupation by workers in agriculture, forestry or ancillary industries. The counties adjacent to the major towns had strongly opposed the outward expansion of the urban areas. The Green Belt Circular of 1955 strengthened their power: henceforth the green belts were to be seen as devices for limiting urban growth, with the landscape quality of the countryside clearly a secondary issue.
   Since 1945, the growth of privately owned transport has led to massive pressure for development within the green belts. Housing developers prefer to build on greenfield sites: building costs are lower than for ‘clearance’ sites, and the new houses generally fetch better prices in their more salu-brious surroundings. Local planning authorities are therefore constantly under pressure from commercial interests trying to undermine the green belt concept.
   Proponents of green belts must continue to argue for the protection of the countryside against sprawl, and for new housing to be concentrated within the existing urban boundaries wherever possible. By retaining or increasing the density of the existing townships, civic amenities are strengthened, public transport is made more viable and the environmentally damaging reliance on the private motor car is reduced.
   Further reading
    Cullingworth, J.B. and Nadin, V. (1994) Town and Country Planning in Britain, London: Routledge (overview of British planning).
   JIM HUNTER

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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