An effective Green Belt review
A Green Belt is usually defined as a strip of countryside around a town where building is not allowed, except in ‘very special circumstances’.
To most people this sounds like a good, environmentally friendly idea which not only helps to prevent urban sprawl but ensures the future of agriculture, forestry and outdoor pursuits. However, in recent years Green Belt policy has come under fire for constraining the amount of land available for housing and consequently pushing up house prices.
A balance must be found if the country is to build the number of houses it needs – one million by the end of the current Parliament according to Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis only yesterday – and I believe the Green Belt review process can play a key role. However, this can only provide a solution if the review process is conducted in an effective and thorough manner.
The Metropolitan Green Belt around London was first proposed by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee in 1935. The Town and Country Planning Act of1947 then allowed local authorities to include Green Belt proposals in their development plans. Now Green Belts are common throughout the country and their purpose is clearly defined within the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This framework re-affirms that the Green Belt has five purposes, namely to:
- Check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas
- Prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another
- Assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment
- Preserve the setting and special character of historic towns
- Assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land
Although existing Green Belts fulfill these purposes it does not mean they should remain unchanged. Indeed, on closer inspection we could find that many Green Belts can be altered in size and shape and still meet the requirements set out in the NPPF. This is where an effective Green Belt review can provide a golden opportunity. When Green Belt reviews are undertaken as part of the formulation of new local plans they can assist in securing the release of land for housing, thereby helping to realise the socio-economic benefits of housing and lessening the housing affordability crisis.
However, even when Green Belt reviews do inform local plans they may still fail to deliver the available benefits. Often local planning authorities take a broad-brush approach when undertaking reviews and can fail to look at the specific circumstances of individual sites. When this happens we shouldn’t be afraid to question the findings; it is possible to reverse the results of a review as proven recently in West Lancashire.
In West Lancashire there is 94% Green Belt coverage and scarce land available for housing growth. As such, the need for further residential development sites was recognised and a Green Belt review was conducted. Peter Brett Associates (PBA) acted for a client whose land had been initially disregarded for residential use in the review. PBA argued that the site did not fulfil any of the Green Belt's five purposes and highlighted the features that could form a new, well-defined and defensible Green Belt boundary.
After consideration, the Council decided to allocate the site for 150 dwellings in the Local Plan, which was adopted in October 2013. This is one of only two sites, out of 257 parcels that were assessed by the Council, to be released from the Green Belt.
A similar situation occurred in Barnsley where there is 77% Green Belt coverage. A local requirement for 21,500 dwellings between 2008 and 2026 was set out in the Barnsley Core Strategy and the Council's evidence base demonstrated that this requirement could not be accommodated without the release of some Green Belt land. A subsequent Green Belt review was carried out. However, whilst a strong argument was put forward demonstrating that a local site did not fulfil the purposes of the Green Belt, the review only considered large parcels of land and as a result the smaller was not included in the draft Local Plan as a housing site. Unless the site is included in the next version of the emerging Local Plan it will therefore be sterilised, despite it clearly not fulling any Green Belt purpose.
While these examples highlight how a Green Belt review can fail to look at small opportunity sites, they also demonstrate how local councils can be open to re-examining review findings. Local plan reviews should be seen as an opportunity to address Green Belt anomalies and release land that is not fulfilling any Green Belt purpose. But not all councils take this opportunity. I have highlighted just two examples in two authorities – how many more sites are there across the country that do not have a persuasive argument to remain as part of the Green Belt?
Some final thoughts that we should perhaps consider on this issue…
Would the situation be as contentious if the same land was defined as ‘Countryside’ as opposed to Green Belt? Will we solve the ‘Housing Crisis’ if urgent action is not taken? What will be the long term effect on house prices and affordability, especially for first time buyers struggling to get onto the housing ladder? Does all Green Belt land deserve the same level of protection? These are all questions which must be addressed when we consider Green Belts and their ongoing review.
Ultimately we should learn that Green Belt reviews are not just a numbers exercise concerning untouchable land, they should align with strategic local objectives and, with due care and consideration, can deliver vast improvements for local communities while retaining benefits for the environment.