April 8, 2015
The green belt in the UK was conceived as a buffer to stop towns and cities sprawling into the countryside. But now the urgent need for residential and commercial development has raised questions about its economic impact. By James Lacey, Partner Vail Williams (as published in the Planning Magazine)
On the face of it, little has changed of late in green belt policy. In fact, politicians from the Prime Minister down have been keen to emphasise how tight it remains round our urban areas.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles himself said in October last year: “This government has been very clear that, when planning for new buildings, protecting our precious green belt must be paramount. Local people don’t want to lose their countryside to urban sprawl or see the vital green lungs around their towns and cities unnecessarily developed.”
Yet recent developments, including the Localism Act 2011, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the government’s drive for increased housing provision, as well as appeal decisions and councils’ green belt boundary reviews, suggest that the green belt is coming under greater scrutiny. But the question remains as to who would lead what is likely to be – locally at least – an incredibly unpopular challenge to a planning institution that has existed since 1947.
The current position of the NPPF is that the green belt is retained “to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open”. For land that is designated green belt, then, there seems little chance of development.
Despite its supposed permanence, however, the green belt can be revised by planning authorities when they prepare or review their local plans, which the NPPF states should always take account of the “need to promote sustainable patterns of development”. That includes considering the potentially negative consequences of channelling development into urban areas, into towns and villages in the green belt itself, or into locations beyond the green belt, rather than reviewing green belt boundaries. Any changes to the green belt should take effect through local plan reviews and then only in “exceptional circumstances”.
Those exceptional circumstances might seem rare, to gauge from Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments earlier this year. “Building more homes and protecting our countryside can go hand in hand. In fact, development on the green belt is at its lowest rate since modern records began 25 years ago,” he said. “In the green belt that exists around our cities, nearly one-fifth of England’s ancient woodland stands tall and proud, as it has done for centuries.” Those comments have not been lost on planning authorities, with few willing to challenge the green belt consensus.
Despite these strong sentiments, however, the growing emphasis on localism is starting to be interpreted by some as a subtle signal to local authorities that the green belt is now up for debate, in the right circumstances.
In October last year, planning and housing minister Brandon Lewis remarked: “We have put local plans at the heart of the reformed planning system, so councils and local people can now decide where development should and shouldn’t go.
“Support for new housing is growing, because communities welcome development if it is built in the right place and does not ignore their needs. That’s why 230,000 planning permissions were granted by councils in the last year alone, while the most recent official statistics show that green belt development is at its lowest rate since modern records began in 1989.”
While the green belt is protected, then, Lewis implied that it is down to local authorities to determine planning matters for themselves. One example of how that might can be seen in Coventry, where outline approval was agreed for plans by developers Lioncourt Homes for a major development of 800 homes on green belt land. Although the plot was part of a larger site being put forward as suggested development under the new local plan, a planning report made clear there were no local policies yet in place to support it – bringing it under the NPPF and into the realms of “exceptional circumstances”.
The benefits of meeting local housing need, improving recreational facilities and enhancing public open space offered sufficient advantages to the wider community that Coventry City Council members decided that they tipped the balance against strict adherence to green belt protection.
There is NPPF guidance too for planning authorities on how to consider future green belt allocations, which emphasises not including land that it is “unnecessary to keep permanently open”. It urges consistency with local plan strategies for meeting “identified requirements for sustainable development”, and suggests areas of “safeguarded land” between the urban area and green belt, to meet longer-term development needs well beyond the local plan period.
The inference is that the NPPF is upholding existing green belt as strongly as ever, while also pushing councils to question whether retaining it in their plans may become an obstacle to their community’s future development. Councils are now starting to look again at their allocations: Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council is assessing its green belt, as Guildford Borough Council has also been doing – at least until work was put off until after next month’s elections.
That may be the kind of locally driven decision-making that Labour leader Ed Miliband had in mind when he was quoted as saying it should be left to individual councils to “weigh up” whether new estates should be built on brownfield sites or potentially on unspoilt green fields or protected green belt land.
Given that the UK seems to be facing considerable demand for housing and employment sites, it will be difficult to maintain the consensus that the green belt is untouchable. But while the government hints that the green belt is up for discussion – albeit only through years of local plan revisions – there has been little positive talk about areas that could be sustainably developed. Instead, the emphasis has been on what land cannot be touched. It is clear that some councils are actively reviewing constraints in their areas, but unless there is national leadership on the matter, the green belt is likely to come under greater and greater strain in future.