How to make the green belt productive - but keep it green

Walkers on Box Hill, in the North Downs. Most green belt doesn't look like this. Image: Getty.

England’s green belts have had, and continue to have, a major impact on town planning. The idea of a ring of countryside surrounding an urban area to prevent sprawl originated in the 1930s, spread to post-war London and was adopted nationally in 1955. Today, about 13% of England is green belt land

But what made sense in the 1950s seems outdated and rather stale now. A one-size-fits-all approach to tackling complex planning issues tends to create more problems than it solves. You don’t need a belt-shaped area of land to check urban sprawl; you don’t need to block all development to promote greener outcomes. Perhaps in the 21st century it is time to admit that green belts are no longer fit for purpose.

In theory, the idea of still has strong protection within the government’s planning framework. That document identifies five strategic functions for the green belt:

  • To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • To prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • To assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

But green belts have been attacked for failing to meet these purposes by a range of vested interests, who've proposed a range of different ideas in response. The head of Persimmon housebuilders, for instance, has called for a relaxation of green belt controls to ease the housing crisis. The chancellor wants more imagination from local planning authorities in where houses are built – including possible incursions into the green belt. Even Natural England, the government body responsible for safeguarding England’s natural environment, has previously called for a major policy rethink

In any case green belt protection is potentially illusory. Greenfield sites, including green belt, are increasingly favoured by developers as they are cheaper to exploit than brownfield sites which have much higher transaction costs. Here economic growth priorities and national planning policy tend to push development pressures onto the urban fringe areas, rather than to more costly brownfield land.

There is clear evidence that while green belts have stopped urban expansion (at least, in some cities), they have resulted in unintended consequences: higher-density development at the urban fringe, including disconnected “edge cities”, and “leapfrogging” development over the green belt to undermine other areas of countryside.

Green belts have a presumption against development, and thus come with little incentive to be positively managed for environmental, community or economic purposes. This leads to degraded landscapes which, while having a valid planning function, produce limited benefit to communities and the environment – unless, of course, you are lucky enough to live in or next to one.

As with natural assets more generally, it's this lack of incentive for active management that is the greatest cause for concern. It's therefore time for a fundamental rethink of the green belt.

Beyond the belt

For one thing, the “belt” metaphor has had its day. We should define bespoke areas that are functional to local geography and the needs of the cities and towns concerned; so wedges, fingers, belts, bananas or whatever shapes may equally apply.

Rather than have green belts used for just major cities we should also create a more inclusive, ubiquitous and positive set of zoning policies, that apply to large towns and major settlements.

Rather than a impose a rigid presumption against development, we should aim for zones that encourage innovative uses that generate investment in environmental and community benefits in keeping with the principles of sustainable development.

Finally, rather than enabling politically convenient incursions into the green belt under the guise of sustainable urban extensions, local planning authorities should define these zones by considering the long-term development needs of their area looking 50 years into the future rather than the present 25 years.

Positive spaces

These principles lead me to propose the idea of “green investment zones”: new positive spaces to invest in. The urban fringe could be rejuvenated by, for example, community food-growing initiatives for health and recreation, or wetland creation for flood protection and biodiversity. A green investment zone would be flexible enough to incorporate whatever new initiative an entrepreneur might propose.

This would require local planning authorities to think strategically, and come up with bolder and longer term visions about the kind of town or city they want to create. The current 25-year planning lifecycle is not long enough.

Developers shouldn’t see these zones as automatic no-go areas. While housing should not normally be allowed in them, they should act as valuable green spaces that can help to protect new and existing housing development from floods and drought. They can provide local food growing areas. and spaces for play and recreation. They also can be used to protect our agriculture and, perhaps more controversially, for energy production (solar, anaerobic digestion or biomass) – neglected planning factors, all.

In this green belt debate we need to move out of the silo thinking. Separating housing, industry, transport, community, landscape and environment needs just leads to disintegrated development.

The green belt may no longer be fit for purpose – but it must not be allowed to become a developers’ charter for nothing more than the short-term pursuit of economic growth. We need to create a more equitable, environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible zoning tool. In that way, we could address current planning shortfalls, and promote a more positive image for planning. The Conversation

Alister Scott is Professor of Environment and Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University.

He has received funding from Research Councils UK, Defra, Scottish and Welsh Governments as part of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme for work on the urban rural fringe. He has also received funding from Research Councils UK, Defra and the Welsh Government as part of the National Ecosystem Assessment Follow on Programme. The ideas in this article stem from these research projects but are personal views and do not reflect the views of other partners in the research.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

High streets and shopping malls face a ‘domino effect’ from major store closures

Another one bites the dust: House of Fraser plans to close the majority of its stores. Image: Getty.

Traditional retail is in the centre of a storm – and British department store chain House of Fraser is the latest to succumb to the tempest. The company plans to close 31 of its 59 shops – including its flagship store in Oxford Street, London – by the beginning of 2019. The closures come as part of a company voluntary arrangement, which is an insolvency deal designed to keep the chain running while it renegotiates terms with landlords. The deal will be voted on by creditors within the month.

Meanwhile in the US, the world’s largest retail market, Sears has just announced that it will be closing more than 70 of its stores in the near future.

This trend of major retailers closing multiple outlets exists in several Western countries – and its magnitude seems to be unrelated to the fundamentals of the economy. The US, for example, has recently experienced a clear decoupling of store closures from overall economic growth. While the US economy grew a healthy 2.3 per cent in 2017, the year ended with a record number of store closings, nearly 9,000 while 50 major chains filed for bankruptcy.

Most analysts and industry experts agree that this is largely due to the growth of e-commerce – and this is not expected to diminish anytime soon. A further 12,000 stores are expected to close in the US before the end of 2018. Similar trends are being seen in markets such as the UK and Canada.

Pushing down profits

Perhaps the most obvious impact of store closures is on the revenues and profitability of established brick-and-mortar retailers, with bankruptcies in the US up by nearly a third in 2017. The cost to investors in the retail sector has been severe – stocks of firms such as Sears have lost upwards of 90 per cent of their market value in the last ten years. By contrast, Amazon’s stock price is up over 2,000 per cent in the same period – more than 49,000 per cent when considering the last 20 years. This is a trend that the market does not expect to change, as the ratio of price to earnings for Amazon stands at ten times that of the best brick-and-mortar retailers.

Although unemployment levels reached a 17-year low in 2017, the retail sector in the US shed a net 66,500 jobs. Landlords are losing longstanding tenants. The expectation is that roughly 25 per cent of shopping malls in the US are at high risk of closing one of their anchor tenants such as a Macy’s, which could set off a series of store closures and challenge the very viability of the mall. One out of every five malls is expected to close by 2022 – a prospect which has put downward pressure on retail real estate prices and on the finances of the firms that own and manage these venues.

In the UK, high streets are struggling through similar issues. And given that high streets have historically been the heart of any UK town or city, there appears to be a fundamental need for businesses and local councils to adapt to the radical changes affecting the retail sector to preserve their high streets’ vitality and financial viability.


The costs to society

While attention is focused on the direct impacts on company finances, employment and landlord rents, store closures can set off a “domino effect” on local governments and businesses, which come at a significant cost to society. For instance, closures can have a knock-on effect for nearby businesses – when large stores close, the foot traffic to neighbouring establishments is also reduced, which endangers the viability of other local businesses. For instance, Starbucks has recently announced plans to close all its 379 Teavana stores. Primarily located inside shopping malls, they have harshly suffered from declining mall traffic in recent years.

Store closures can also spell trouble for local authorities. When retailers and neighbouring businesses close, they reduce the taxable revenue base that many municipalities depend on in order to fund local services. Add to this the reduction in property taxes stemming from bankrupt landlords and the effect on municipal funding can be substantial. Unfortunately, until e-commerce tax laws are adapted, municipalities will continue to face financial challenges as more and more stores close.

It’s not just local councils, but local development which suffers when stores close. For decades, many cities in the US and the UK, for exmaple Detroit and Liverpool, have heavily invested in efforts to rejuvenate their urban cores after years of decay in the 1970s and 1980s. Bringing shops, bars and other businesses back to once derelict areas has been key to this redevelopment. But today, with businesses closing, cities could once again face the prospect of seeing their efforts unravel as their key urban areas become less attractive and populations move elsewhere.

Commercial ecosystems featuring everything from large chain stores to small independent businesses are fragile and sensitive to change. When a store closes it doesn’t just affect employees or shareholders – it can have widespread and lasting impacts on the local community, and beyond. Controlling this “domino effect” is going to be a major challenge for local governments and businesses for years to come.

Omar Toulan, Professor in Strategy and International Management, IMD Business School and Niccolò Pisani, Assistant Professor of International Management, University of Amsterdam.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.