The green belt dilemma


    Amanda Beresford, Head of Planning at corporate law firm Shulmans, asks whether the government’s house building plans will result in development in the green belt…

    The new Conservative government has ambitious plans to rectify our current housing shortage. Their manifesto promised 200,000 new starter homes and 275,000 additional affordable homes by 2020. In its recent paper “Fixing the Foundations: Creating a more prosperous Nation” the government sees boosting house building as part of the answer to increasing the nation’s productivity. Their manifesto also promised to protect the green belt, a promise restated several times by Conservative ministers since the election. Can the two objectives of increasing housebuilding and protecting the green belt be reconciled? Are there enough sites for new housing without building on green belt land?

    A number of steps were put in place by the previous coalition government to address the housing shortage. These included a temporary relaxation of permitted development rights on the conversion of some buildings, such as offices, so that these could be used for homes without the need to apply for planning permission.

    Further initiatives introduced by the new Conservative government include a requirement for local authorities to compile a register of brownfield land and have in place a “zonal system” which would automatically grant planning permission for residential development on suitable brownfield sites. There are also proposals to enhance compulsory purchase powers to allow more brownfield land to be made available for residential development and to allow some increases in the height of properties in London without the need for planning permission.

    However these initiatives are not without challenges. The development of brownfield first before greenfield land has long been established planning policy, so it’s not necessarily the inability to get planning permission that has prevented brownfield sites from being developed. Often the issue is viability. Such sites can be subject to contamination or infrastructure constraints that make them too costly to develop profitably. Also such sites may not be in the places where people want to live or where there is easy access to work or the right infrastructure in place. Although it must be right to identify and develop suitable brownfield sites for housing first, it is questionable whether these measures alone will produce sufficient sites for the quantity of new housing proposed.

    The government continues to maintain that there will be no change to existing green belt policy. This generally prohibits building in the green belt except in special circumstances. Despite some planning permissions which have allowed development in the green belt, the latest government statistics show that 13 per cent of the land area of England remains green belt (an estimated 1,638,610 hectares). It may be necessary to look at this green belt land again for further housing sites.

    Indeed, the government has already acknowledged that part of the solution to the housing need may be in the construction of new garden cities, such as Ebbsfleet and Bicester, both of which have been promoted by the government yet will necessarily involve taking land which is currently in the green belt.

    The answer may be that local planning authorities can consider the need to make changes to the green belt through the local plan process. There are numerous examples of emerging local plans where land is proposed to be taken out of the green belt and allocated for development (for example, the Leeds Core Strategy and emerging Leeds Site Allocation Plan). If land is first removed from the green belt allocated for residential development and then granted permission and developed, the government will have maintained its promise not to allow development in the green belt.

    Removing land from the green belt as part of the local plan process presents its own challenges. Another strand of planning policy is the promotion of localism and neighbourhood plans. There is a clear tension, and therefore plenty of potential for conflict, between local authorities preparing local plans seeking to delete land from the green belt and giving more power to local communities who invariably wish to retain all green belt land. The government’s proposals to scrap the need for planning permission on identified brownfield sites and relaxation of some permitted development rights as referred to above has also been criticised as being against localism.

    An additional problem is the speed with which local plans are produced. Currently, only a relatively small percentage of local planning authorities have up to date adopted local plans. The need to address the housing crisis through building new houses is urgent and waiting for local plans to be adopted to identify sites, including those which may require deletions from the green belt, is unhelpful. The government have recently announced that they will take further action to ensure local authorities put local plans in place by a set deadline, that the Secretary of State will intervene when local authorities do not produce them by arranging for local plans to be written in conjunction with local people and that proposals will be brought forward to speed up the procedure for creating local plans. At the time of writing no further details are available.

    Part of the answer may also lie in the devolution of powers to city regions and the creation of the Northern Powerhouse, both of which are promoted by the government. These moves could lead to better strategic spatial planning which may help resolve where the new housing should go, whether land should be taken out of the green belt, how best to connect to transport and link housing to the location of community, economic and other infrastructure.

    The provision of some planning powers to London and Manchester is already promised. General devolution deals are also being discussed with Sheffield and Leeds City Regions and Leeds, West Yorkshire and partner authorities. Again, there is the potential for conflict with the localism objective which the government appears to hope to help resolve through insisting on the provision of elected mayors where powers are to be given.

    It remains to be seen how the inevitable tension between providing enough housing sites, protecting the green belt and fostering localism will be resolved but there are clearly interesting times ahead! ■

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    Amanda Beresford

    Head of Planning


    Tel: 0113 245 2833


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