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Green Belt: When exceptional circumstances aren't exceptional

Green Belt: When exceptional circumstances aren't exceptional

It’s fair to say that we were relieved when the Housing White Paper was released with no sign of the Government explicitly weakening Green Belt protection. After weeks of rumours and ominous briefings by ‘Government sources’, it had seemed almost certain that the Government was going to abandon its manifesto pledge to ‘maintain protection of the Green Belt and other nationally designated landscapes.’ But our relief quickly turned to concern as it became clear that the Paper as a whole could serve to fundamentally weaken the status of Green Belt.

In his annual lecture to CPRE – his first speech after the release of the Housing White Paper – Housing Minister Gavin Barwell looked to reassure us that the Government hadn’t changed its attitude towards the Green Belt. And it’s true that there was much that could be welcomed in the paper. There is a restatement of the manifesto commitment to protecting the Green Belt; as well as the statement that Green Belt boundaries should continue to be altered only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ and after all other reasonable options for meeting housing need have been ‘examined fully’.

If we take these claims at face value it looks like it’s largely business as usual when it comes to the Green Belt. But this is not the picture we get from the detail of the Housing White Paper, which appears to undermine the Government’s commitment to its manifesto pledge.

Permanence is one of the two essential characteristics of Green Belts, along with openness. Green Belt’s permanence is critical to minimising land speculation by developers and encouraging the long-term management of Green Belt land for farming, nature reserves and other natural resources. In policy and practice this has meant that Green Belt boundaries, once set, should endure for at least the typical 15-year life of a development plan and, preferably, for longer.

The White Paper now suggests that Green Belt boundaries can and should be reviewed every five years, as part of the new legislative requirement to both have a Local Plan and then to review it every five years. This interpretation is supported by paragraph 22 of the Government’s very recent response to the Select Committee inquiry on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

This isn’t the only way that Green Belt’s protection is weakened by the Paper. The Government’s reiteration that Green Belt can be released only in exceptional circumstances sounds reassuring – until we realise that under the definition of ‘exceptional circumstances’ in the Housing White Paper it looks like these circumstances are set to become much less exceptional.

The proposed definition of ‘exceptional circumstances’ test (para 1.39 of the White Paper) suggests ‘housing requirements’ should be one component. But in many areas, housing requirements are often highly ambitious and well above recent trends of actual housebuilding. There is no prospect of there being the kind of public investment in housing that would enable these requirements to be met any time in the future – so the test could be used by developers and some local authorities to justify a constant state of Green Belt review. This is a fundamental change in emphasis from previous statements by ministers that housing demand alone isn’t a reason to change Green Belt boundaries.

We also fear that the requirement to ‘examine fully’ other options may prove to be toothless in practice. Since the introduction of the NPPF in 2012, planning inspectors have rarely challenged local authorities who have actively sought to promote Green Belt release, even where there are significant amounts of brownfield land available. Bradford and Leeds are key recent examples of this.

The White Paper has plenty of valuable insights on the broken housing market and how we can fix it, but it appears to seriously undermine the Government’s manifesto commitment to protect the Green Belt. Breaches of the Green Belt and our protected landscapes are a symptom of this broken market, and not a workable or sustainable solution for it.

The Housing White Paper as a whole could serve to fundamentally weaken the status of Green Belt.

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