The Green Belt saga

Copyright 1969 - P Hamson, chairman, Radlett Green Belt Society issued Sept 1969

At the end is a list of Green Belts as at September 1993, based on structure plans and local plans, as stated in PPG2 - Planning Policy Guidance - Green Belts.


"Green Belt" is a term that mystifies many people. Some think they know what it means, and say it is just countryside where you must not build. Some people think it is a rigid ring of open country round London, several miles deep and in the form of parkland. A few people do realise that it is a restricted area round a town to prevent the outward sprawl of building and provide a breathing space.

The idea of a "Green Belt" is not new; it was first proposed by Sir William Petty in the seventeenth century to make a Green Belt two miles from the centre of London. The next proposal was made in 1910 by Dame Henrietta Barnett (of Hampstead Garden City fame) for a Green Belt five miles out of London. Both these schemes failed due to lack of support.

Later there was the L.C.C. Green Belt Scheme of 1935 and the Green Belt Act of 1938. These were improved by Sir Patrick Abercrombie's Greater London Plan of 1944 and the Green Belt was established by the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 and more firmly by Amendment in 1968.

There is no doubt now that public opinion, when properly informed, is seriously alarmed by the many attempts to break the Green Belt Ring, particularly by private speculative builders and some local authorities.


One has only to travel out of a town to realise what "sprawl" means. The octopus-like growth of a large town spreads its tentacles over the countryside, engulfing all before it. In the early days, towns were of reasonable size, with easy access to the countryside, but today with cities having populations of over a million inhabitants it is quite common for people to have to travel at least ten miles before they see open fields. An agglomeration of bricks and mortar has a tendency to grow and soon develops into a livid rash of modern buildings across the countryside. Ill-devised suburbs divested of any semblance of amenity, even lacking shrubs and trees, soon drive their own inhabitants to seek serenity and beauty.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution in this country the towns have been expanding into the countryside. If this industrial progress had taken place more smoothly and the doctrine of laissez-faire of the nineteenth century had not been so prevalent, perhaps many of our cities would have assumed a more "Continental" pattern and been more pleasant to live in. There would also have been much less pressure to move outwards than exists today. The plain fact is, that our big cities are the product of another age and in most cases suffer from such congested layouts that it is impossible to meet the growing demands of the present population for better standards of housing amenity and open spaces. Furthermore, the decay of houses in some of our big towns is almost unbelievable. In Manchester alone there are over 200,000 houses in a state of decay. Unfortunately, if an area is re-developed or a slum is cleared, it is not possible to re-house. in that area the whole of the original population. Modern standards permit only twelve dwellings to the acre as against ninety to the acre in the last century.

In the past, congested towns have sought relief by sprawling into the surrounding countryside in successive rings of suburbs or housing estates and sometimes this took the form of 'Ribbon Development'. All this is wasteful of land. This type of irresponsible growth during the period 1919 to 1939 swallowed up half the remaining market-garden land of Middlesex and thousands of acres of the fertile inner-Essex belt of market gardens that once fed London. It has also covered many acres of the Thames Valley so that the gravel, invaluable for concrete making, cannot be dug.

Thus it will be seen that the compelling need for a Green Belt around towns has arisen from the phenomenal growth, leading to an "overspill" of population and a desire for breathing space. It has also arisen from the menace of the outward sprawl of building which leads to ribbon development, conurbation (the joining up of towns) and the engulfment of small towns.

Nowhere is this problem more severe than in the London area and for this reason Sir Patrick Abercrombie, in his 1944 Greater London Plan, suggested a scheme of town planning "Rings" so that expansion could he kept under control.


To understand fully the meaning of the Green Belt idea it is necessary to have some knowledge of the historical background. Although the Green Belt Act of 1938 was the first tangible step taken to safeguard open spaces for a Green Belt around London, it was the Greater London Plan, 1944, propounded by Professor Abercrombie, which first proposed a definite "Green Belt Ring".

It was found from a survey of the main features of the growth of Outer London that there is a tendency towards concentric rings which can be measured in terms of housing density. These have become known as:

(1) The Inner Urban Ring

(2) The Suburban Ring

(3) The Green Belt Ring

(4) The Outer Country Ring

Thus the "green ribbon" of the 1938 Act became a planned "Green Belt Ring" known in London more generally as "the Metropolitan Green Belt". For the first time, the proposition was accepted that ordinary countryside, mostly stretches of agricultural land, could be conserved for a Green Belt around London.

One of the most important Government Acts to effect the structure or the Green Belt was the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. It decreed for the first time that County and County Borough Councils should prepare development plans of their areas for a period of twenty years ahead. The County Development Plan is a most important map which indicates generally which land constitutes Green Belt. It is revised and approved by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government every five years. Its effect on our lives can be enormous and it can always be seen at the relevant County or Town Hall.

In the London Area, involving the Metropolitan Green Belt, County Development Plans have been prepared by the Counties of Middlesex, Kent, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Essex, Berkshire and Hertfordshire and have been approved by the Ministry. The first Reviews of these plans are now awaiting the approval of the Ministry and the second Reviews are being considered by the Counties.'

"Green Belt" has been defined as seven to ten miles deep all around the built-up area of Greater London in these plans and apart from some limited "rounding off" of existing small towns and villages, no further urban expansion is to be allowed within this belt. Already there are proposals before the Ministry for a further extension of the Green Belt and it will be interesting to see if they are approved.



After all the Government legislation of the last twenty years and the statements made by Ministers, one would think that the Green Belt Ring was established firmly and irrevocably, but this is not the case.

Although County Development Plans are approved by the Minister they are subject to revision every five years. Notwithstanding this, anyone who has had an application for building refused can appeal to the Minister, who may institute a Public Inquiry. The number of Public Inquiries held by Inspectors of the Ministry runs into many hundreds per year. "Justice must not only be done but it must be seen to be done" is a firm basis of good law.

The pressure of scattered building in the countryside around our urban areas prompted the Minister to circulate an instruction to local authorities on the Green Belt.

One planning officer has stated that no planning circular has ever been so popular with the public and that the Green Belt has "caught on" and is supported by people of all shades of opinion. The main problem of the Green Belt is the operation of effective control and the difficulties in this respect are considerable.

It is noteworthy that the Minister of Housing and Local Government has given Planning Permission, in certain cases, for development in the Green Belt concerning schools, cemeteries and sewerage plants.

It is an over-simplification to say "Let the Government Purchase the land" as this would cost many millions of pounds and would not settle all the social and compensation problems.

The truth is that we cannot have our cake and cat it! The people who want cosy houses with paved streets, sewerage, electric light, gas and water etc., cannot have it cheaply without lots of other people having it at the same place, nor can they be "commuters" in such circumstances without causing sporadic sprawl of the towns. Nor can the country dweller, in this small island, expect to keep all his country amenities at the expense of the people in the towns who are in dire need of houses. The most feasible compromise is to create Green Belts around the towns within which only building which will not encourage population growth or a demand for further housing is permitted. We have town folk and country folk now and perhaps by 1984 we shall have also Green Belt folk! Certainly a rare breed.


There is no doubt that there is a phenomenal need for more houses and they should be built as soon as possible - but not in the Green Belts. The solution lies in the implementation of the Town Development Act 1952, which allows big cities to rehouse some of the people on their waiting lists, outside the Green Belts, by means of "overspill" schemes. In the case of the Greater London area a number of country districts beyond the London Metropolitan Green Belt, such as Swindon, Ashford, Bletchley, Aylesbury, Basingstoke, Letchworth, Chelmsford and many smaller towns, have been recommended for expansion. The success of these schemes depends very much upon satisfactory financial arrangements and particularly on stability in interest rates.

It is interesting to note that already several thousands of Londoners are prepared to go to new housing estates to be established beyond the London Metropolitan Green Belt because work is waiting for them there.  Whilst great relief of the pressure for houses in the Green Belt is possible by sending people beyond, some consideration is also being given to the erection of high blocks of flats near the Green Belt.


The Green Belt has sometimes been classified as an "amenity zone" and with the meaning of "amenity" in its truest sense, the Green Belt should be regarded logically as a zone of "pleasantness". It is incredible that until recent years few people of authority considered amenity to be a subject worthy of consideration. Inevitably this subject has become resolved ultimately into a question of an "attitude of mind" which then becomes known as "public opinion".

Under the panoply of the Town and Country Planning Act, planning officers have displayed haloes of amenity iff the form of clearly defined horizontal green lines across their County Development Plans and it was Mr. Harold Macmillan as Minister of Housing in 1953 who said: "The Government is paying millions of pounds to preserve agricultural land, the 'Green Belt' and land for amenity value, but the object ought to be worth the money."

Again, in 1956, Mr. Duncan Sandys stated in the House: "A year ago, apart from the Metropolitan Green Belt, there was no formally defined Green Belt around any other city in this country. That is why I decided to send a circular to local authorities expressly asking them to establish Green Belts wherever appropriate. I am greatly encouraged by the response."


1. In spite of County Development Plans, County Councils are not always consistent in their attitude towards the maintenance of the Green Belt in contiguous areas. An example of this is the absurd position of land on one side of a road being designated as "Green Belt" whilst the opposite side of the road is not "Green Belt" merely because the road happens to be the boundary between two counties whose Councils have different ideas.

2. Local Councils can become more absorbed in increasing rateable values than in preserving amenities.

3. A strong Amenity or Rural Preservation Society representing local opinion can often show that there is no "compelling" reason for development of an area.

4. Such local societies can command the most competent professional services and the skill of independent legal counsel with the highest forensic ability.

5. Lack of expressed local opinion may be argued as a justification for proposals.

6. Inadequate public notice of a forthcoming Public Inquiry has often to be remedied by action of an Amenity Society or Parish Council.

The value of a Rural Preservation Society is as great as public support makes it but few people axe aware of such societies and of the influence they can exert if well supported.

Green Belt questions in the Greater London Area can now be referred to the "London Green Belt Council" which includes representation from nearly all the Rural Preservation Societies around London. In addition, there are the County Societies, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Ratepayers' Associations. The preservation of what remains of the beauty of our country must surely be the wish of all, but whether the Green Belts will be preserved seems to depend on how much trouble the individual will take to make his voice heard in public.


No modern story of the Villages of Hertfordshire would be complete without mention of the "Green Belt" policy of the Hertfordshire County Council which will have a profound influence on their future. The full details can be obtained from the County Planning Officer, Herts County Council, County Hall, Hertford.

 In general, the maintenance of the Green Belt will help to prevent the octopus-like growth of the great wen of London, which in the past has, to a great extent, been responsible for the loss of individuality of many small towns and villages in the Home Counties. In this respect, it is noteworthy that:

(a) the Green Belt Policy of the Herts. C.C. was partly responsible for the cancellation of the projects to extend the London Underground Railway direct to Watford via. Edgware and Bushey and to St. St. Albans via Bamet and Shenley.

(b) if there had been a Green Belt between Barnet and Finchley it is probable that Barnet would have not been transferred from the jurisdiction of the Hertfordshire County Council to that of the Greater London Council, thus becoming part of Greater London.

Common Land

There is another aspect of rural life in Hertfordshire, which merits consideration, and this is the question of the preservation of Common Land. This matter is now of national importance because of the Commons Registration Act 1965. The purpose is to find out and register the facts about the estimated 1.5 million acres of Common land (and town and village greens) in England and Wales, which must be done between 1st January 1967 and 2nd January 1970.

It is interesting to know that in Hertfordshire alone there are 5,550 acres of Common Land, included in 70 commons and 116 village greens. There is an excellent book published by Sir Dudley Stamp entitled "The Common Lands of England and Wales" which explains how the "Inclosure Acts" of the 19th century did so much to preserve our Commons. It seems familiar to read that "the Inclosure Commissioners could specify as a condition of enclosure the setting aside of an area for the purpose of exercise and recreation for the inhabitants of the neighbourhood". How similar to our Green Belt ideas as stated in the 1938 Green Belt Act and in subsequent Town and Country Planning Acts which established the present Green Belts, not only in London but also around many of the Provincial towns!

The new Civic Amenities Act 1967, which was enacted to provide for "Conservation Areas", "Tree Preservation", and orderly disposal of disused cars and refuse may do much to improve the amenity of the Green Belt areas.

There is no doubt that the strength of public opinion regarding the need for preservation of the amenity in the countryside caused the Civic Amenities Act. Consequently, Planning Officers in many counties are preparing plans for the designation of some villages as "Conservation Areas" to protect them from unsightly new buildings and alterations to existing buildings which are incongruous to the established character of the area, in scale, materials and design. The Conservation Area Procedure will be complimentary to the general Green Belt Policy. It will do much to improve the amenity of "Green Belts" in various parts of the country, and particularly in the London Metropolitan Green Belt.

Approved Green Belts, based on Structure Plans and Local Plans , Sept 1993 - as stated in PPG2

Total = 1,555,700 hectares, divided as below

Avon ..70,600 Oxford ..34,800
Burton-Swanlincote ......700 South & West Yorkshire 225,900
Cambridge ..26,100 Stoke on Trent ..36,500
Gloucester & Cheltenham ...8,100 SW Hampshire & SE Dorset ..85,400
Greater Manchester,Merseyside, Cheshire, & Lancs 241,700 Tyne & Wear ..46,500
London 485,600 West Midlands 209,300
Nottingham & Derby ..60,800 York ..23,700