The New Political Divide: Green Belt Land and the Future of Planning for Homes (Insider Media Ask the Expert Article)5 June 2023 0
Florence Hewett, Planning Consultant at Enzygo Ltd, discusses how the topic tends to elicit strong responses from communities, and is becoming a key political issue in the long run up to a General Election. So should the Green Belt be defended, or released?
Debates about the future of the Green Belt have reignited this month, after Keir Starmer stated that a Labour government would take action on undersupply of new homes. Starmer suggested increased housebuilding would include building on Green Belt land “where appropriate”. In response, Rishi Sunak pledged to protect the Green Belt and instead move away from housing targets.
The topic tends to elicit strong responses from communities, and is becoming a key political issue in the long run up to a General Election. So should the Green Belt be defended, or released?
Contrary to popular conception, Green Belt is not an ecological designation, but a land designation put in place surrounding many urban areas in the UK. The two essential characteristics of the Green Belt are its permanence and its openness, with the following five purposes:
- to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
- to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
- to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
- to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
- to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
The term was originally created by Octavia Hill, 19th Century social reformer and voice in the campaign to retain open spaces for access by urban populations. It was also advocated by Ebenezer Howard. The legislative foundations for the policy date to the mid-20th Century, most notably the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.
It is Local Planning Authorities’ role to define and maintain their local green belts. The National Planning Policy Framework advocates a brownfield-first policy to protect Green Belt boundaries, requiring “exceptional circumstances” before boundaries can be changed. National policy states that inappropriate development is harmful to the Green Belt and should be approved only in “very special circumstances”.
Present-day proponents of the Green Belt, much like the original reformer advocates of the concept, highlight the recreational benefits of access to open space, as well as health and wellbeing improvements for urban populations. For example, the CPRE refer to the Green Belt as ‘the countryside next door’. Advocates also point to the importance of undeveloped land as wildlife corridors, and benefits for urban pollution.
However, the concepts of greenfield land and Green Belt are frequently conflated, and not all Green Belt is green, ecologically important, or publicly accessible. Its value to communities and/or environment is inconsistent. Poor quality land under a historic Green Belt designation might be subject to protection at the expense of community recreation land, for example. Another, climate-related issue is that in a bid to secure housing supply, local authorities can come under pressure to approve housing on floodplains, when land at lower risk exists but is protected as Green Belt.
The concept is therefore increasingly recognised as flawed, particularly as the housing shortage in the UK becomes ever more apparent.
The recent Government consultation on planning reform proposed “to make clear that local planning authorities are not required to review and alter Green Belt boundaries if this would be the only way of meeting need in full”. This shift has caused some concern over its impact on future housing delivery.
What might a reformed approach look like?
Research has been undertaken by the Centre for Cities looking at one possibility to meet housing need – building housing around existing railway stations in the Green Belt. Removing the designation from land within an 800m radius (10-minute walk) of stations located within 45 minutes’ commute from cities would unlock 47,000 hectares of land in just five city regions. This demonstrates the potential of Green Belt areas to accommodate compact, sustainable development without creating urban sprawl or allowing existing settlements to coalesce.
This creation of a walkable neighbourhood, centred on sustainable transport, links to the 20-Minute Neighbourhood concept (examined in a previous Ask the Expert column by my planning colleague Murray Graham – Ask the Expert: Reinventing Cities for the 21st Century (enzygo.com), and discussed by me in two co-authored TCPA articles this spring – https://www.tcpa.org.uk/journals/).
The true nature of reform – whether the current government’s proposed moves to protect existing Green Belt communities from housing pressures, or the shadow government’s proposals to rethink the role of Green Belt in the face of housing shortages – is not currently clear.
For now, Local Authorities can seek to argue ‘exceptional circumstances’ when amending Green Belt boundaries at Local Plan review or preparation of new plans, and those with an interest in land have the opportunity to submit Green Belt sites for consideration at this stage. LPAs with limited land supply are also vulnerable to having Green Belt developments approved at appeal if they cannot demonstrate a 5-year supply. In recent weeks, two such appeals for 100-house developments have been allowed in the Green Belt in Surrey and near Manchester.
Some LPAs have also paused their Local Plan processes, to await policy clarification on the strength of Green Belt protection versus the need to demonstrate a 5-year land supply. While this reduces the stability of the local planning environment, it can potentially provide opportunities for individual sites, for example if allocations are re-evaluated later in the year.
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The full article can also be viewed here – The new political divide: Green Belt land and the future of planning for homes | Blogs | Insider Media