How has the green belt protected the countryside and what is its future?

We’re standing on the highest point of the Greensand Ridge, a sandstone escarpment running across Kent and Surrey, which offers us extensive views over the Weald of Kent.

Not far from this spot, artist Samuel Palmer painted a similar view south across the Weald of Kent, depicting this area as his "earthly paradise".

The Weald of Kent by Samuel Palmer, 1834, Wikimedia Commons

This view of quintessentially English lowland isn’t much different today: hedged fields, pockets of woodland, scatterings of farm buildings and the distinctive cone-shaped white chimneys of Kentish oasthouses (buildings for drying hops).

One reason the view is largely unchanged is the Metropolitan Green Belt. This ring of countryside around London controls growth, prevents urban sprawl and keeps a clear distinction between the town and the countryside.

There are 14 green belts around the country, circling urban areas including Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle. Between them they cover just over a tenth of England. Besides providing ‘breathing space’ for millions of people they are important for food production, preventing floods, climate change and tourism, not to mention biodiversity.  

Map showing the green belt around London © London green belt council

But with Britain facing a housing crisis, many people argue that building on the green belt is the most obvious solution.

In the south east alone, London’s population is set to increase by 2 million in the next fifteen years, putting increasing pressure on the Metropolitan Green Belt. The purple dots on the map mark out areas already under threat from development.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) argues that there are enough ‘brownfield sites’ (damaged and derelict land) that can be built on. They call for tighter controls and enforcement to protect the erosion of the green belt.

On the other hand, a report published by the London School of Economics argues that some green belt isn’t environmentally valuable and proposes ‘corridors’ of development with ‘green wedges’ either side. 

The issue is certainly contentious. What might Octavia Hill have made of it? Her views were instrumental in setting up the notion of a green belt. Yet as a nineteenth-century social reformer working in London’s East End, her mission was to improve working class housing, addressing issues of overcrowding and unstable tenancies.

With many families today still crowded into unsuitably small homes, with little opportunity to experience the countryside for themselves, would loosening the green belt offer them a better future Or with inner city families having limited opportunities to experience the countryside, is the green belt a vital breathing space for the city?

Can we find a middle ground so that we protect valuable countryside while finding space for affordable homes? Perhaps we need an Octavia Hill for the twenty first century?

Tightening the belt

View across the Kent Weald from Ide Hill © Explore Kent

Ide Hill, Kent Downs viewpoint

This stone bench commemorates Octavia Hill, a social reformer and one of the founders of the National Trust. Her campaigning work protected the woods around us and the view you can see from here, from development.

Hill believed that green spaces should be available to everyone, particularly the urban poor. She was the first person to coin the term ‘green belt’, which describes areas of open space left undeveloped to protect the countryside from the pressures of expansion.

But today, with population growth increasing pressure on land, the green belt has become a controversial issue.

This viewpoint is one of 12 created in partnership with Kent Downs AONB to celebrate their 50 year anniversary in 2018. 


How has the green belt protected the countryside and what is its future? Click to reveal the answer


Ide Hill, near Sevenoaks, Kent

Grid reference:

TQ 48552 51560

Getting there:

From Ide Hill village green take the signposted footpath past the church and a field of donkeys to enter woodland. Follow the signs marked 'Octavia Hill centenary trail' to find a concrete bench in the woods. 

Keep an eye out for:

Carpets of bluebells through the woodlands in spring

Stretch your legs:

For a beautiful circular walk connecting Toys Hill and Ide Hill, includeing a stop at this viewpoint, see the National Trust website

Kent Downs AONB Anniversary Year:

Ide Hill is in the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

This year the AONB celebrates its 50th anniversary. Find out more and Head for the Hills

Ide Hill, Kent Downs viewpoint credits

This viewpoint is one of 12 new views created in partnership with Kent Downs AONB to celebrate their 50 year anniversary in 2018. The events and activities throughout the Anniversary Year of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are supported by Heritage Lottery Fund.  

Thanks to National Lottery players, The Heritage Lottery Fund invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife.   



The poor should never be denied beauty” - Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust and green belt champion