Free the green belt: a quest to map England's green belt
Currently there is no open, shareable map of the national green belt and more importantly, with existing data, it's not possible to make one. Alasdair Rae explains the story behind the green belt data
It's widely known that towns and cities in the United Kingdom are - in theory at least - protected from urban sprawl by the existence of statutory green belt land. However, precisely where all this land lies is not widely known. In England, as of 2011, about 13% of land across 186 local authorities was designated as green belt but anyone trying to pinpoint exactly where it all is soon runs into difficulties, as this freedom of information request clearly shows.
Current changes to the planning system(PDF), and calls to release more land to house a growing population, make this green belt data deficit all the more frustrating, particularly given the government claim that it 'attaches great importance to green belts' (National Planning Policy Framework, Chapter 9, p.19). General data on green belt land in England are available from the Department for Communities and Local Government, yet no freely accessible national online map of the green belt is currently available.
Answering even the simplest of questions about the geography of the green belt is therefore substantially more difficult than it ought to be. Is there any green belt land within the M25? Does Leicester have a green belt? Does Hull? How big is the North West green belt? Is there any green belt in Walthamstow? My quest to find out the answers to such seemingly simple questions and produce a shareable online map of the English green belt has been successful, yet I can't share it because green belt map data remains closed, despite the advent of an open data culture in central government. The story is similar in other parts of the UK but here I focus on England and my quest to create an open, shareable national green belt map.
Why does any of this matter? It matters for many reasons, but here are two. Firstly, there is almost constant pressure to open up green belt land for development yet interested parties (be they housebuilders or local residents) cannot freely and easily find out what's green belt and what's not. This makes it much more difficult to have a meaningful debate about topics of real national interest, like HS2 or house building in the green belt. Secondly, in this new age of openness and transparency in government it seems odd that members of the public, researchers and organisations should have to pay to access information that is, after all, a collection of government-funded data. As ever with such matters, it is all a little bit more complicated than it seems but I take the view that this data forms a core component of our national digital infrastructure and should be free.
The back story to all this is somewhat drawn-out, but it can be summarised as follows. I discovered that there existed a digital boundary of the English green belt via a Land Use Change Statistics bulletin(PDF) from 2008 but I soon learned that the dataset was not publicly available. I then found that the data could be obtained from Landmark, a well known digital mapping organisation, so I set about getting a quote. I was told that it would cost in the region of £35,000 plus VAT for the complete English dataset.
This set alarm bells ringing, but in fairness to Landmark I should say that they were simply the private sector organisation chosen by the government to capture and maintain green belt boundary data. I then went back to the Department for Communities and Local Government to ask if I could have the data for research purposes, since I am currently undertaking a project on housing market search patterns in green belt areas. I was granted a licence and given the data but I can't share it with anyone. Digital data expert Owen Boswarva provides more detail on his blog, but the bottom line is that, for now, this crucial part of our digital data infrastructure remains closed.
In answer to the simple questions posed above, I can tell you that there is green belt land within the M25, that Leicester and Hull have no green belt, that the North West green belt is very large indeed (more than 1,000 square miles) and that the green belt in Walthamstow is small but significant. For those with a keen interest in the green belt, these are hardly revelations, but a national online map of green belt land would allow users to examine in detail the geography of England's green belt and build up a very fine-grained picture of this historically contested national resource.
It would also allow us to explore, for example, York's donut-shaped green belt, Blackpool's patchwork green belt or analyse the overlaps between the proposed route for HS2 and existing green belt land.
Much more importantly, a national green belt map would allow all parties - pro and anti-development - equal access to data on a topic where location really is everything.