Green Belt: the countryside next door to 30 million people needs investment to level up access to nature, says CPRE

The Green Belt is missing out on government funding for the restoration of nature and cultural heritage despite it being the countryside next door to 30 million people – or more than half of England’s population.
Valued spaces such as the parkland setting of Bentley Priory – the headquarters of the RAF during the Battle of Britain – are at risk of neglect or loss. The government is being urged to meet its commitments to both protect and enhance Green Belt land or risk losing it to development forever.
So called ‘agri-environment’ schemes to plant trees, improve soil health, boost biodiversity and restore historic parks and buildings are not sufficiently benefiting the countryside that is most accessible to the general public. The findings come as repeated studies show the countryside around our most populous towns and cities is increasingly valued by the public.
Analysis by CPRE, the countryside charity, of a recent government study shows that four out of the 10 most valued parks in England are on Green Belt land. Land managers interviewed by CPRE confirmed the surge in the number of people visiting historic sites and beauty spots first reported during lockdown has continued to remain strong, with the Green Belt increasingly being used for walking and recreation.
Just over a quarter (28 per cent) of Green Belt agricultural land is covered by agri-environment schemes, compared with 42 per cent nationwide. Only 7 per cent of all national spending is on Green Belt land, even though Green Belts contain 11 per cent of all England’s farmland.
A new report by CPRE recommends boosting funding for the countryside next door to our towns and cities. In addition to improving access to nature, the schemes should aim for broader public benefits such as strategically planting trees and hedgerows to prevent urban flooding.
The Countryside Next Door: why we need to invest in greener, healthier Green Belts is the first research to analyse the geographical spread of where agri-environment funding has been spent. The government is initiating a new regime of Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes to replace previous agricultural and land management subsidies. The report demonstrates that the new schemes are the most important means by which the government’s own pledge to safeguard and improve the Green Belt can be met.
Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “The government needs to invest in the Green Belt on a major scale if ministers are to meet their political commitments to protecting and enhancing the countryside next door for 30 million people.
“The alternative to funding the Green Belt increases the risk of it being built on it instead. History repeatedly shows that when protected countryside is under-appreciated it’s at risk of being lost forever to development.
“People deserve countryside on their doorstep where agriculture is less intensive, where there is space for nature that everyone can explore and enjoy and which is accessible to all. Green Belts have a crucial role in enhancing the sustainability of our cities. Green Belt land can provide essential ecological functions and recreational benefits that are fundamental to health and well-being. And this can go hand in hand with sustainable agricultural production and climate-change mitigation.”
The Green Belt includes more than 6,000 miles of public rights of way, 34 per cent of all England’s nature reserves and 22 per cent of its historic parks and gardens. The report shows that many social groups face particular challenges accessing these places, such as crossing busy roads, stiles and a lack of reliable public transport.
Against a background of cuts to local government budgets for supporting parks and green spaces, funding from existing agri-environment schemes has played an essential role in maintaining historic parks around our towns and cities and making them more accessible.
That’s why CPRE is calling for a significant increase in investment in the Green Belt through ELMs, to improve the countryside environment closest to where the majority of people live. The government committed in the Levelling Up Bill to “improved Green Belts around towns and cities” and to “develop plans for further greening of the Green Belt in England”.
To address deprivation and ensure as many people as possible benefit, there should also be new investment to improve the countryside around large cities that don’t have a protected Green Belt, such as Leicester, Norwich, south Hampshire and Teesside.
Ben Goldsmith, vice-chair of London Rewilding and a Defra board member, said: “Few people grasp the degree to which the natural fabric of Britain has become depleted. Sights, sounds and smells that were common to previous generations are unknown to much of ours.
“A lack of access to green spaces exacerbates the disconnect from nature now experienced by great swathes of our society. Britain’s Green Belt areas offer a tremendously exciting opportunity to reinvigorate nature right on the doorstep of tens of millions of people, reconnecting rural and urban nature and bringing wildlife into our most densely populated centres. This report from CPRE, which articulates how we might go about rewilding our green belts, is spot on and hugely exciting.”