The green belt debate: should we protect our green and pleasant land around London?

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Words can get so emotionally loaded that it stifles rational discussion. Take 'The Green Belt'. Say it and you think of countryside walks and open natural spaces, not to mention a national treasure it's our duty to protect for future generations. Question its boundaries and you might as well attack Englishness itself.

But, the truth is that the capital's housing crisis is forcing the debate. And for that to be fair, we need facts. It's amazing, then, that it's taken until this year to get a single easily available overview of London's green belt, in London First's Green Belt report. The details it provides are pretty surprising.

Understand our green belt

Firstly, green belt land within London's boundaries is only 6% of a much larger metropolitan green belt, spreading out 40 miles from the centre. However, even the small portion of green belt that lies within London still accounts for well over one fifth of the capital's total land. That's only 5% less than the total area covered by buildings, roads and railways, and doesn't include the gardens and other green space, which make up the remaining 45% of London.

So, what is London's green belt actually made up of, and who benefits from it? 22% is indeed made up of environmentally protected land, parks, and public access land. A further 59% is used for agriculture. But over 7% – more than double the size of the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea- is used for golf courses.

This is the kind of detail you uncover when you dig beneath the surface of what, essentially, is the result of legislation for a different city from a different time. Creative interpretation of regulations over the years means that the capital's green belt is far from one big wildlife reserve, where Londoners can roam free.

The lungs of the city

That's not to say those who want to protect it are wrong. The Campaign for Rural England, for example, lead with the emotive argument that preserving these open spaces creates a kind of huge 'lung' cleansing the city's air. They recognise the urgent housing pressures we are facing, but believe that regenerating existing urban spaces offers the best solution.

Their stance is supported by leading architect and city planner, Lord Rogers. He points out that London already has planning permission for more than 200,000 homes, enough to take us to 2020. But, since a prime reason for spiralling house prices is demand outstripping supply, developers get the greatest rewards for building slowly. So open up green belt land, and you'd only get intensified land speculation and little increase in house building.

In addition, there's the potential for 400,000 homes to be built on brownfield sites. Go down this route, the CPRE and others argue, and there's simply no reason to touch the green belt. There's enough complexity in this area for a separate blog. In the meantime, the one thing that's certain is that London's hugely increasing population demands something gives in the battle over where to build.

Stay tuned for more from Will on the SellMyHome blog. You can read more insights on the property on the Blog.

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