A country hung by its own Green Belt?

John Baker

A grown up debate about Green Belt policy is long overdue if Britain is to tackle its housing crisis, argues John Baker.

The word ‘crisis’ is increasingly used in relation to housing supply. Yet Green Belt is preventing enough land coming forward for housing, and in the right places.

Policymakers refuse to look at Green Belt policy because of the status it has in the national psyche. No other planning policy is so lauded while being so misunderstood. Even some of the better sections of the media misconstrue all green fields as Green Belt and it is almost universally seen as a means of halting change. It would take a brave government to propose a radical change to Green Belt policy.

But not to face the issue, while still lamenting the lack of housing supply, is untenable.

The Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) doesn’t allude to a change in view anytime soon. The PPG confirms the thinking behind recent appeal decisions such as the Secretary of State’s decision to overturn an Inspector’s recommendation to allow an appeal for 99 dwellings in the Green Belt between Bristol and Bath.

"As Green Belts tend to be around the larger cities and towns, they affect the very locations where population growth and demographic change is greatest, where the most economic potential lies and where the greatest accessibility can be achieved. By definition, they are where development would be most sustainable."

The approach to Green Belt in preparing development plans according to policy is more accommodating than in determining applications. But a letter from Planning Minister Nick Boles MP to the Chief Planning Inspector in March has probably left individual inspectors more wary of recommending modifications to a plan’s handling of the Green Belt where an adequate review has not been carried out by the local planning authority with a housing need to address.

Tellingly, Nick Boles opened this letter with the words: “I was very troubled by the media coverage…” That his chief concern appeared to be negative press about development in the Green Belt says a lot about the nervousness of politicians over the issue.

To talk about Green Belt policy, we need to look at its origins. Green Belts were drawn up in the 1950s and 1960s, following the 1955 circular which suggested they should be made ‘around large built-up areas’ and should be ‘several miles wide’.

Most have not changed much over the years and their extent is often fairly arbitrary. Some of our towns and cities have them and some don’t. The Metropolitan Green Belt around London means that there are adjoining fields in Essex where a totally different planning regime operates – in one field the onus is on the planning authority to show why planning permission should be refused while, in the next, it is on the developer to show why it should be allowed.

In the decades since Green Belt’s introduction, we have created a very different planning system with a commitment in legislation and national policy to a plan-led system and to positive planning. An evidenced, collaboratively prepared plan decides the scale, location and form of development. It is not a free for all.

But we still have Green Belt policy, a complete anachronism but one which has an enormous influence on plans and the pattern of development.

Planning decisions about the location of development need to be based on an understanding of the potential impact on a wide range of environmental assets and of the contribution to social, economic, and environmental objectives, while being part of a wider spatial strategy for the long term. Determining the location of development because of a Green Belt that cannot change is the antithesis of this.

As Green Belts tend to be around the larger cities and towns, they affect the very locations where population growth and demographic change is greatest, where the most economic potential lies and where the greatest accessibility can be achieved. By definition, they are where development would be most sustainable.

Currently, only about half of the housing that the country needs is being built each year. The Government has made the provision of housing a priority - planning has a critical part to play through the supply of suitable, available and deliverable land. This should be through properly made development plans.

National planning policy is that a five year supply of housing land should always be in place. So, Planning Inspectors will allow appeals according to a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ if that supply isn’t in place. Unless, that is, the appeal site is in the Green Belt.

National planning policy has always provided for Green Belts to be changed through development plans. Some local authorities get on with the job. In accordance with the duty to cooperate, some groups of authorities are working on collective Green Belt reviews. But many other local authorities are not prepared to review their Green Belts for fear of popular resistance.

Some local planning authorities have already spotted that if they made a plan they would be obliged to review their Green Belt, whereas if they didn’t make a plan, the Green Belt would be safe from permissions being granted for housing development on appeal. What’s not to like about saving money on plan-making and keeping your seat on the council? Now there could be the added, rather attractive option of making a plan without reviewing the Green Belt and without making provision for the level of housing a change to the Green Belt would require.

So where does this leave us? With or without a plan, more of the housing that gets planning permission is going to be on sites on green fields but not in the Green Belt. These sites will be further from main settlements where there is the greatest need, and residents will be more dependent on the car.

Is this really what we want from our planning system? Instead, let’s get rid of Green Belt policy and have a positive planning system, fit for a modern country. At the very least, we should have the intelligent debate on Green Belt policy that has never taken place, rather than continue on a path of obfuscation, myth and cant.

John Baker, Partner at Peter Brett Associates LLP