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How to get planning permission for building on Green Belt land in the UK [2024 edition]

Everything you ever possibly wanted to know about the Green Belt, from the policy debates to what you need to know to build a house there

14 January 2024
9 minutes read

Getting planning permission to build on the Green Belt may be tricky - but it’s certainly not impossible!

Yes, you read that right! Green Belt planning permission is not impossible

Did you know that:

  • Last year alone, planning applications to build an additional 35,000 homes on UK Green Belts were submitted.
  • In the past nine years,  more than 24,000 homes were constructed on UK Green Belts.
  • In 2017, the number of homes built on UK Green Belts doubled.
  • 35% of all Green Belt land in England is intensive agricultural land.

Find out all the essentials about Green Belts and learn how to get planning permission to build on them.

As a property entrepreneur, have you ever thought about buying a patch of Green Belt land to build your own house or to construct homes for property investment?

Or like many landowners, have you ever thought about building your dream home in the countryside? Imagine what it would be like to get planning permission for Green Belt land!

I'll explain why Green Belts should be used for development - and show you how to develop a design so you can compile an effective application for your Green Belt planning permission application.

I'll examine Green Belt planning loopholes, evaluate development opportunities, discuss why we should build on UK Green Belts and explain how you can get planning permission to do so.

The housing crisis in London

There’s no sugar-coating the fact that London is in the middle of possibly its greatest housing crisis. The average price of a home in the capital in 2020 is over £600,000 – and over £1.5m in Kensington & Chelsea – and social housing waiting-list figures show that there are almost 350,000 houses in demand.

According to London councils’ analysis of housing statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and Greater London Authority, 526,000 new homes should have been built in London between 2011 and 2021 just to keep up with current housing demand.

A further 283,000 homes would also be required to meet both new demand and the backlog of housing need in London.

London's Green Belt Boroughs
Source: CityMetric

In 2018, an article in The Telegraph claimed that the majority of Theresa May’s Cabinet wanted the then Prime Minister to relax Green Belt restrictions to help tackle the housing crisis.

The article quotes Simon Clarke, then a member of the Commons Treasury select committee, pointing out that "the Green Belt does not, as most people might reasonably assume, correlate with ‘green’ or ‘environmentally protected’ land" such as national parks and areas of outstanding national beauty (AONBs).

So what does it all mean?

Quite simply, house prices have increased as the supply of houses cannot meet the demand in urban areas due to developments being constrained by Green Belt land that isn't fit for purpose. Those without adequate income find themselves pushed out, and in many cases, they’re forced to make long-distance commutes to get to work across the very Green Belt that is restricting development.

How will this issue be dealt with? The answer is simple: by opening up Green Belt land for development.

But for a long time, it was hard even to know where exactly the Green Belts were. The government made it almost impossible to publish a nationwide online map of them. Fortunately, that has changed, and now you can see exactly where all England's Green Belts are – and what properties are inside them – in detail with our interactive green belt map.

The legal and political background of Green Belts

Let’s start by defining what Green Belt land actually is. The designation of Green Belts is a policy issue and not always applicable to the wider countryside.

In essence, Green Belt sites are designated zones around major towns, cities and settlements whose fundamental purpose is to prevent urban sprawl. They are categorised by their openness and permanence, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that building on them is an absolute no-no.

Like most things, it comes down to government and the policies that are in place. In July 2018, the government published guidance in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) aimed at protecting Green Belt land.

But here’s the interesting thing – a press release on 5 March 2018, from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), emphasised that councils should prioritise brownfield sites for redevelopment. The release strongly suggested that Green Belt land should be prioritised at all costs to limit urban sprawl as much as possible.

And there’s more!

The MHCLG went so far as to suggest that once Green Belt land has been identified, it is only in the most “exceptional of circumstances” that any type of development could be approved on this land. 

The MHCLG guidance on Green Belt development opportunities states clearly that the NPPF must be read thoroughly and applied as a whole; that the 'need for development' is not a sound enough reason when councils develop their local plans. A strategic housing land availability assessment must consider the following factors:

  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
  • Protected Sites (Birds and Habitat Directives)
  • Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
  • Heritage Coast
  • Heritage Assets
  • National Parks
  • Flood Risk

Getting Planning Permission for your Green Belt development may be easier than you think. Contact us today to have a more in-depth discussion on your next steps.

Decorative image of an architect working

Update: with respect for your time, we would like to inform you that we do not take on projects with less than a £400k construction budget. In our experience, we have found that we are unable to properly serve clients working with a smaller budget on Green Belt projects.

The government's position on Green Belt planning permission – the ‘swaps’ scheme

Generally, the government’s position on planning permission for Green Belt development is one of extreme caution to avoid controversy. Their objective is to protect Green Belts at all costs and to encourage developers to build on brownfield (and non-green belt) countryside.

However, in December 2016, government ministers publicly backed a “swaps” scheme for Green Belt development.

This policy enabled councils to meet their demanding housing targets by freeing up areas for development in return for a separate area of land, which would then be protected. National government could support this by changing the NPPF to allow councils to swap other categories of land, such as low-grade agricultural, rather than just brownfield sites, as is the case now.

The bottom line: this plan requires no net loss of Green Belt and enhances the landscape. It can target housing in key areas of need, ensuring that a small percentage of land has high impact. (Indeed, there are successful examples of this plan in action).

With this method, major developers could access land that is usually outside of their control and that is below current residential land prices. There are a few minor issues to be resolved, however.

To solidify the “swaps” scheme it would take full public endorsement by political leaders who support opening up Green Belt land. This, in turn, may be misconstrued by certain members of the public. But you can’t please everybody!

Surprisingly, this method could create a mini-industry in speculative land trading in Green Belt areas, making cheap land release much harder as landowners hold out for high prices. To solve this problem, policymakers can put a cap on prices for landowners to release their plots of land. This is something councils will have to consider.

Growing support in parliament

Certain factions within parliament understand the pressing need for freeing up Green Belt land, particularly those areas that are a mere 45 minutes away from London and just a 10-minute walk from the train stations.

Siobhain McDonagh, MP for Mitcham and Morden, introduced a motion entitled “Housing and London’s Green Belt” lamenting the intense need for London housing. While recognising the value of protecting certain portions of Green Belts, she urged the chamber to acknowledge “the important opportunity that this land offers with space for over 1 million new homes.” She added: “There should be a presumption in favour of housebuilding on this land.”

In an article published in May 2018, MP McDonagh criticised the lame-duck government for producing “a never-ending flow of reports, discussions, words and promises” without ever actually doing anything. She pointed out that Theresa May and her ministers had failed to reach the intended goal of 300,000 new houses per year, despite the fact that a mere 10 minutes from Tottenham Hale Station there exists a barren concrete wasteland bearing the unfortunate title of Green Belt land –  and there are many similar sites.

She questioned why we shouldn't build new houses in wasteland environments, and strongly recommended building on areas that are only green in name?

Why should we build on Green Belts?

Green Belt land can help sustain the environment, adds character to a particular area or borough and should be treated with respect.

But there are many reasons why building on Green Belt land can be a viable option too, and that means many opportunities to get Green Belt planning permission.

I appreciate that the value of Green Belt land to prevent urban sprawl and offer environmental protection, but I also don't believe that the scattered plots of Green Belt land play an essential role in preventing urban sprawl. Therefore we need to recognise the crucial opportunity that many Green Belt plots offer for building over 1 million new homes.

Before we go any further, let's examine those reasons:

1) Green Belt land isn't hugely effective

In reality, Green Belts do not stop urban areas from growing, they just redistribute that growth into more rural settings.

Larger towns and cities develop a commuter belt along main roads/routes and rail links into the city. For example, London’s commuter belt stretches from the Isle of Wight to (arguably) South Yorkshire!

We need to understand that moving housing developments beyond the Green Belt means that commuters have farther to travel, which has a detrimental effect on the environment, as well as people's quality of life.

By Urbanist Architecture
By Urbanist Architecture

2) A concrete country or a concrete myth?

The media might paint Britain as a land of pavement and urban sprawl, but in fact, the opposite is true. Britain is still a green and pleasant land without vast swathes of concrete!

We can easily debunk the ‘concrete myth’ with some figures…

Only 10.6% of England is actually built upon, and if you take the whole of the UK, this figure drops further to 6.8%. Rather impressive, right?

You may have already realised that allotments, parks, gardens and sporting pitches/fields are counted in this number. If you remove these, the figure drops to a paltry 2.27%.

But how much does the Green Belt cover? 12% of England. That's right, only 12%.

3) It's not even green!

As we’ve already mentioned, the core purpose of the Green Belt is to prevent urban sprawl. The land itself often has no inherent natural beauty, ecological value or agricultural purpose, as opposed to a national park or AONB land. In fact, the majority of Green Belt land is low-quality scrubland and only gets a special designation as part of the attempt to contain the surrounding city or town.

Have you ever wondered why it deserves protected status? After all, this land can even be used for high-intensity farming, and most of it is privately owned and inaccessible to the public.

4) The housing crisis

Crucially, England is plagued with severe housing shortfalls, particularly in the south-east and London, and - this is not unconnected - this area also has the largest amount of Green Belt land. Building on just 25% of the Green Belt land inside the M25 would allow for just over one million new homes to be built. This would be a substantial gain in the current housing crisis. And while commuting into London means travelling through suburban landscapes, you can’t help feeling that it’s a price worth paying to have one million homes on the market.

Whether these are affordable homes, social housing, or privately developed and sold is actually of little importance. Building more homes in sufficiently large quantities will have a significant impact on the market, and as a result, you will see housing prices fall in tandem with the private rental market. Those who were sharing will be able to afford their own place, and those with too little space will be able to choose something bigger.

5) A cause of inequality

Essentially, Green Belt land drives up inequality by putting up barriers to those who can’t afford to live in city centres. On the other hand, it relegates city dwellers to increasingly tighter, more densely populated areas.

So what can we do about it? Clearly we need to open up Green Belt land to more housing development, especially in the South East and London, and obtaining Green Belt planning permission is not impossible.

The NPPF states that local planning authorities shouldn't approve the construction of new buildings unless they propose the following exceptions:

  • Buildings which are to be used for agriculture or forestry
  • Facilities associated with outdoor sports or recreation
  • Facilities for cemeteries
  • Extensions and alterations to existing buildings which remain proportionate and within the character of the original
  • The replacement of a building according to the same parameters as the above
  • Limited affordable housing
  • Limited infilling in villages

So, what do I need to do to get Green Belt planning permission?

In short, getting planning permission for Green Belt land - while difficult - is possible given the right circumstances.

Paragraph 147 of the National Planning Policy Framework states that “inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances." Therefore, the construction of any new buildings would be considered inappropriate development on Green Belts, and as such, you would be required to submit a case for “very special circumstances” which must outweigh the resulting harm to Green Belt land.

Exceptions to the inappropriateness of new buildings include limited infilling in villages which would not have a greater impact on the openness of the Green Belt. Now the question remains: What qualifies as an infill development?

Previous case law has classified infill developments as sites that are within or immediately adjacent to built-up areas, given the sites have good physical infrastructure provision and transport connections, and would have already been developed if not for their status as Green Belt land.

This kind of development is less impactful than isolated sites that are less sustainable. Infill developments do not ‘harm’ the Green Belt because they do not constitute urban sprawl and therefore do not impede the openness or purpose of the Green Belt.

One thing to bear in mind is if the council fails to demonstrate they have a five-year supply of housing, then the chances of securing planning permission would be higher as the new dwellings proposed would be needed in terms of adding to the supply of housing in the area.

Another important factor to take into account is design quality!

Securing new development on Green Belt land will depend on aspects of design quality. According to Paragraph 11 of the NPPF, there is a presumption in favour of development for buildings or infrastructure that promote high levels of sustainability. So, getting Green Belt planning permission relies on the quality of your design.

Getting Planning Permission for your Green Belt development may be easier than you think. Contact us today to have a more in-depth discussion on your next steps.

Decorative image of an architect working

Update: with respect for your time, we would like to inform you that we do not take on projects with less than a £400k construction budget. In our experience, we have found that we are unable to properly serve clients working with a smaller budget on Green Belt projects.

What Is Paragraph 80 and can it help me?

So we’ve seen that houses can get planning permission where there is an existing building or the site is in an existing village. But what if you have a property that meets neither of those conditions?

According to the NPPF, isolated new homes in the countryside should be avoided unless there are special circumstances. One of these circumstances – as laid out in Paragraph 80 – is the exceptional quality or innovative nature of the design of the dwelling.

In order to meet this test, a design should be truly outstanding or innovative, helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas, reflect the highest standards in architecture, significantly enhance its immediate setting and be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area. Therefore, the LPA and the Planning Inspectorate will consider your schemes against these criteria. 

Of course, whether or not a proposal is of a truly outstanding or innovative design is a subjective matter. For this reason, local authorities should have design review arrangements in place to provide assessment and support to ensure high standards of design, for example in the form of an architects panel. 

Even in the face of conflict with planning policies applicable to most of Green Belt cases, the quality of the design and incorporation of sustainability concepts from the start, coupled with ecological benefits and a sensitivity to the characteristics of the area can be sufficient to justify your scheme when considered against the criteria set out in paragraph 80 (formerly known as Para 55).

Again, to achieve this, your proposal should integrate cutting-edge technology in a design that is of the highest standard, while fully engaging within its landscape setting and location to achieve outstanding design criteria. So, the design should be regarded as both exemplary and innovative.

Green Belt design and planning examples by Urbanist Architecture

Green Belt projects are a specialist area of architecture and planning. The challenges are hugely different from, for instance, designing for a tight urban plot in inner London.

Therefore, in order to have a decent chance of succeeding, you need a team who not only can design the exceptional buildings required, but can also understand the mindset of the planning authorities who oversee Green Belt land.

Ideally, you need two consultants to help you: an expert in Green Belt planning permission and a chartered architect specialising in Green Belts to ensure that your development is feasible, as each project is assessed on its own merits. If you are serious about implementing Paragraph 80's requirements, contact us today. We'd love to help.

A single dwelling house with Passivhaus design principles in the countryside

To give you an idea, an example of great architectural design on Green Belt land can be seen in the Passivhaus design below. This is a new build family dwelling we proposed for construction in a Green Belt area in Surrey.

By Urbanist Architecture

Here’s the most important part: due to its high levels of sustainability and architectural merits, the design (above) ticks the boxes for high standards of value and quality – imagine living in a house like this on a beautiful plot of Green Belt land…

A single dwelling house with zero carbon design principles in the countryside

Another successful example is the development of zero carbon homes. These are high-quality luxurious homes that are surrounded by forest and areas of outstanding natural beauty, and they can add great value and character to the sense of place. This example, as seen below, drastically improves the existing setting and is well integrated into the landscape.

By Urbanist Architecture

But let’s be honest - not everyone wants to build a brand new development from scratch. So there are other ways around developments, - such as extensions on Green Belt land - they take time to get right, but it can be done!

Multiple dwelling houses in the countryside

It’s not impossible to get planning permission for Para 80 (Para 55) new build houses, but it can often be difficult, so you do have to hire a high-quality architect who has experience of this kind of project.

Working with our partners Atelier Mona, we came up with answers for this very tricky scheme. The first was how to connect the six dwelling houses that would be on the site with the rest of the world. After careful analysis of all the possible options, we found a way to extend an existing public road leading to a neighbouring property into our clients’ land with minimal loss of trees. 

By Urbanist Architecture
By Urbanist Architecture

The development was designed to be sympathetic to the landscape. The six elegantly modern houses are elevated, which both reduces the flood risk and makes it feel like they sit lightly on the land. The housing is much lower density than the surrounding areas. And most importantly, the houses are designed to the very highest standards – inspired architecture crafted precisely for its setting. 

Next to the houses, we and our client decided to turn what had been a private garden into a park open to the public, with cycle paths weaving through its many trees. Although our client certainly wanted to make a good return on his investment, he also wanted to share this beautiful slice of England with the community. 

The whole project shows that rather than trying to put bog-standard houses on a Green Belt plot and hoping the local planning authority does not take Para 80 seriously, the best developers take its requirements to heart, and build homes that truly are ‘exceptional quality’ and that enhance their setting. We think what we and our client have created does exactly that.

2023 update: The Green Belt moves to the centre of the political debate

For those of us who spend a great deal of time thinking about the Green Belt, it's often been frustrating not just how misunderstood it is, but also how obscure it has been, considering its effect on housing and the economy. But in the last couple of years, it has become an increasingly hot topic. Firstly, Tory leadership candidates stressed how much they were against Green Belt development. Despite that, during the brief Liz Truss administration, Green Belt critic Simon Clarke - quoted earlier in this article - was Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Then came the Sunak government, which has said that local councils will no longer need to review the amount of Green Belt they have, even if they are falling far short of housing targets.

In response, the Labour Party has positioned itself as the supporters of house building, including allowing construction on the kind of non-countryside Green Belt sites we discussed earlier. Along with some other policy changes, this has led a number of Conservative MPs to become worried that the party is trapping itself into being seen as simply NIMBYist and unconcerned about the housing crisis.

All this means that until the next election, the Green Belt is going to be endlessly debated. Our hope is that as this debate continues, more people will become aware of what the Green Belt actually is, as opposed to what people think it is, and we can finally have a properly informed discussion on this subject.

The future of Green Belt land

Meeting housing development needs is a key principle of good planning and crucial to supporting sustainable economic development. Allowing appropriate development on Green Belt land presents an excellent opportunity to provide new homes.

The housing crisis should be considered an “exceptional circumstance,” giving councils the freedom to do what's required and permit development on duly considered Green Belt land. 

To summarise: while building on Green Belts is difficult, it’s not impossible. Even as the political stances have changed, Green Belt developments have increased, which means it’s becoming a more palatable option for smart landowners, housebuilders, property developers and property investors.

Getting planning permission for your development on the Green Belt may be easier than you think. If you have any further questions, please email me today for an in-depth conversation.

Update: with respect for your time, we would like to inform you that we do not take on projects with less than a £400k construction budget. In our experience, we have found that we are unable to properly serve clients working with a smaller budget on Green Belt projects.

Ufuk Bahar, Founder and Managing Director of Urbanist Architecture

Ufuk Bahar

Urbanist Architecture’s founder and managing director, Ufuk Bahar takes personal charge of some of our larger projects, focusing particularly on Green Belt developments, new-build flats and housing and high-end full refurbishments.

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