Since their founding in 1955, Green Belts have protected the breathing space between our towns and cities. They have formed crucial barriers preventing the disastrous urban sprawl we see in other countries. And they continue to provide the countryside next door for 30 million people – offering woodlands and nature reserves close to city doorsteps.
Passing the buck on Green Belt
Yet the Green Belts across England, from London and Bristol to Nottingham and Manchester, now appear under unprecedented threat. CPRE research revealed this week that at least 275,000 houses are planned for England’s Green Belt; this is 25% more than last year and 200,000 more than in 2012. On top of this, there are proposals to take a further 2,190 ha of land out of the Green Belt to accommodate offices and warehousing.
The Government was keen to issue a response to our report. A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said that there were “no plans or policy to relax the strong protections that prevent inappropriate development on the Green Belt”. He added that ministers “have repeatedly been clear that demand for housing alone will not justify changing Green Belt boundaries”.
This comment is in direct contradiction to the Government’s own proposals in its recent consultation on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The consultation proposes to release small Green Belt sites for starter homes, and to make it easier for intrusive development on brownfield sites within Green Belt areas. The Government claims seem like misrepresentation.
Further, and contrary to what the spokesman claims above, councils are deliberately exploiting ‘exceptional circumstances’ loopholes in planning policy to release Green Belt land for housing development. And this to meet high housing targets the Government wants to see.
A major example of this was recently seen in Birmingham. A Government inspector has signed off City Council plans to release Green Belt for 5,000 houses within the City Council area, on the grounds of exceptionally high levels of unmet ‘housing need’ (which, in national planning policy, largely consists of market demand).
In further frustrations, the inspector’s report forestalled work being done locally to plan for housebuilding across the wider West Midlands conurbation, with large tracts of brownfield land available for development in the Black Country - within the conurbation but outside Birmingham City Council’s area. The inspector also failed to look critically at whether the City Council could have done more to identify opportunities to build on brownfield land within the city itself at higher densities. Birmingham’s population density is less than half that of the inner London boroughs.
When challenged about figures on housing plans for Green Belt, the Government often refers to locally-led planning, and how this [better] determines what happens at the local level. See DCLG secretary of state Brandon Lewis on Monday:
@ShaunSpiers1 greenbelt protection is clear in Govt guidance & planning rules plus our emphasis on brownfield. Planning is now locally led.— Brandon Lewis MP (@BrandonLewis) April 25, 2016
The Government’s argument, then, is that its protection is strong, but it is up to councils to decide whether they want to adopt that strong protection or not. However, it is surely having one’s cake and eating it to acclaim the strength of national policy when it is national policy that encourages high housing targets and encourages councils to meet them through the necessary means. Which can include Green Belt release.
The Government is not disputing the figures, but it is passing the buck. If the Government truly wants to protect the Green Belt, it would make it clearer to councils that the Green Belt should be protected – either through stronger national policies or fewer loopholes. It is little known, but planning policy dictates that councils with greater areas of Green Belt can set lower housing targets.
Green Belt policy works best as a strategic tool for managing the growth of a city, and local authorities need to work together to protect it. Allowing dozens of different local authorities to be able to alter the Green Belt in their area is completely defeating the object of the policy, and in particular makes it easier for developers to pressure often cash-strapped district councils.
The Government urgently needs to back up its rhetoric with stronger protections. It should make clear that housing demand isn’t in itself an ‘exceptional circumstance’ to release Green Belt. It should drop its NPPF consultation policies calling for release of Green Belt sites. And, while it has supported brownfield through many measures, it should go all out for a brownfield first policy.
If the Government is happy to take action to ensure houses are planned for, it can also take action to ensure the Green Belt is better protected.