Green Belt land is cheap. So cheap that at some point along the way, every developer has come across a Green Belt site and had the thought, “if only I could get planning permission… ”.
If you know the feeling and want to find out whether it is possible to develop Green Belt land, read on. If you’re a developer or land agent and have no idea what I’m talking about, you really ought to read on.
Interactive Green Belt Map
Map Credit: LandInsight
The Green Belt Divide: Developer's Edition
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of developers:
Those who avoid the Green Belt like the plague
Those who keep a close eye on the Green Belt and seek out land in and around it
Many developers see the Green Belt as an inconvenience, but attitudes are changing. Given the growing demand for housing, some councils are finding themselves in situations where promoting Green Belt land is the only way they can meet their housing needs. This has created a new market in the industry; the strategic land market.
As of 31 March 2020, Green Belt land in England was estimated at 1,615,800 hectares – around 12.4% of the total land.
Developers across the country are strategically seeking out land in and around the Green Belt with a long-term view.
Developers scout out land based on its future potential rather than its immediate payoff. The sites they choose are often greenfield (and sometimes Green Belt) sites at the edge of growing settlements. As the need for housing grows, the argument for land promotion strengthens. They then guide their site through the planning process. Once planning permission is granted they either develop the site themselves or sell it on the market.
Given the low cost of land, the payoffs are huge.
When it comes to navigating land types, there are three main terms to be aware of to navigate the Green Belt and find high-margin sites:
Brownfield: Land that has been built on previously, but is now vacant or in need of redevelopment. The government encourage that these sites be re-developed before greenfield or Green Belt land.
Greenfield: Land that has not been built on before (agricultural/grassland). Greenfield land is protected, but not as strongly as Green Belt land.
Green Belt: Highly-protected land with tight restrictions on development. The Green Belt was created to control urban expansion and is basically a ‘no-build’ zone.
Why would I want to develop on the Green Belt?
Green Belt land is cheap. To give you an idea how cheap, let's take an example.
This 15 acresitein Epping has a guide price of £145,000.
As Green Belt land – that works out at £0.22 /sqft.
If it got residential planning approval – that could be worth £570/sqft.
It’s cheap because of the strong building restrictions. If a developer is able to get planning permission to build on land bought at Green Belt prices, they’ll get a huge payday at the end of it.
Of all the Green Belt land in England, the two largest areas account for almost two-thirds of the total area between them.
The Metropolitan Green Belt (London area) accounts for 31% of all Green Belt land.
And the Green Belt surrounding Liverpool, Manchester and West Yorkshire account for another 31%. (Source: Ministry of Housing)
Both of these areas are growing rapidly and severely stressed for housing.
Can I get planning permission on the Green Belt?
Local planning authorities are extremely cautious about their Green Belt areas and if there is brownfield or greenfield land available that could potentially fulfil the development requirements, they will not grant permission to build on the Green Belt.
In cases where councils aren’t on track to fulfil their five-year housing targets, developers can make arguments for Green Belt land to be released, especially if those developments can’t be built on existing greenfield or brownfield land.
Want to learn more about how your areas of interest are faring for housing targets? Check out the 2020 heatmap.
Or there are always eco-builds...
If you can’t afford to take a five-ten year perspective, you might want to consider building for the ‘eco-homes’ market.
As per Para 55 of the National Planning Policy framework, Green Belt planning permission can be granted for ‘truly outstanding and innovative’ developments that ‘raise the standard of design’.
Although the market is smaller, sustainable homes that push the envelope in terms of design fetch premium prices. The Neilson Report shows that 66% of millennials consider environmental sustainability when making purchasing decisions and are willing to pay more for the greener option.
As more environmentally-conscious millennials enter the home buying stage of life, there is reason to believe that the demand for eco-homes will only increase.
Credit: Keith Hunter, Homebuilding
But the real play? Strategic land
The process of promoting the land takes a long time and is expensive. Land promoters take a five-ten year view when they take on a site for promotion.
But there has been a sharp rise in such applications in the past years and several councils are now reviewing their Green Belt allocation as a whole.
In cases where councils aren’t on track to fulfil their five-year housing targets, developers can make strong arguments for Green Belt land to be released.
Promoting Green Belt land takes expertise in planning and needs a long-term vision. But it’s not something to overlook.
However, there are thousands of greenfield and brownfield development opportunities that could be much simpler to unlock than the Green Belt is.
If you are looking for a traditional development opportunity with a shorter time frame, consider greenfield land.
Greenfield land is still protected and a strong planning application has to be made but it’s far easier to promote than Green Belt land. The rewards might not be as high, but they can still be substantial.
Of course, that means that securing land and waiting for the local planning policies to move in your favour. And this type of deal – called Strategic Land deal – can be an excellent play for savvy developers.
What do planning authorities look for?
It is important to understand how planning authorities judge land promotion applications. After all, the success of a strategic land project depends on whether or not it gets promoted through the planning system.
The key to getting planning permission is to propose a development that helps the local council meet their official local plan goals.
"More than anything, planning authorities look to balance the relationship between providing much needed housing and improving local economies, whilst minimising the impact on the environment. That is the very essence of trying to achieve sustainable development."
- Oliver Myerson, Land Director, Obsidian Strategic
Here are 5 things to seek out when scouting for strategic land:
Locations in desperate need of housing: Edge of settlements
Transport infrastructure: Proximity to stations, bus & tram routes
Environmental impact: Energy-efficient homes, reduction in the reliance on cars
Economic infrastructure: near areas of employment, close to shops
Social infrastructure: Hospitals, community centres, schools, universities, parks
Planning authorities take a holistic view when judging developments. They want to see residents economically and socially involved in the community.
Developments that help fulfil that goal have the edge.
Where do I start my search for land?
There are strategic land opportunities across the country. If you are a local developer and want to stick to your area, you should seek out greenfield and Green Belt land at the edge of settlements. You can then assess those sites based on the criteria above and their commercial viability.
If you are not tied down to your area, it is worth assessing the need for housing nationally. The two large metropolitan areas (London & the North West) are deeply stressed for housing, but other areas are not to be ignored.
Once you move outside of London’s Green Belt area, you can find smaller towns and villages with good amenities surrounded by greenfield land. Such greenfield sites can also take less time to promote (3-5 years).