Following a week of rumours that the Chancellor is the Chancellor is gunning for the green belt, it was good to read the interview with interview with Grant Shapps, the housing minister, in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph. Shapps stated unequivocally that the green belt issue was “settled”. He also made clear that it is not the green belt or the planning system that is holding back development: “We’re not short of schemes to get housing built, we just need to get out there, roll up our sleeves and get developments going.”
He also pointed to the important role house building can play in getting the economy moving. But the main reason we need many, many more new homes is that too many people in our country are poorly housed. We must not focus solely on numbers or see house-building principally as a means to economic growth. The homes we create should be well designed, reasonably spacious – and in the right places.
Shaking up the planning system will not result in the right housing in the right place, but nor will it lead to more houses being built. The planning systems for both housing and major infrastructure have been subject to repeated changes in recent years, and it certainly does not need yet another upheaval. Is it too much, then, to hope that the Chancellor will now state publicly that recent changes will be given time to work?
George Osborne’s frequent attacks on the planning system are based on little more than gut instinct. He has no serious understanding of planning, nor any desire to gain one. That is, of course, forgivable: he has a bigger job to do.
But he should stop interfering. He should beware of government by anecdote: there will always be people frustrated by their failure to get quick planning permission, but it would be a pretty useless planning system that always said yes to development. And he should stop reaching for old Treasury reports commissioned by Gordon Brown to demonstrate that planning holds back growth.
As the former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell said recently, it is important to be clear about the purpose of planning: “If it is to boost GDP, then the answer is simple: concrete over the South East. But of course that’s not what we want.” We need growth, but we also need decent places to live in. And we need – and most people greatly value – our countryside, including the pressured green-belt countryside around most of our major towns and cities. The Government as a whole recognises this, even if the Chancellor does not.
At last year’s Conservative Party conference, Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, gave “a clear and unequivocal assurance that the green belt will be protected under this Coalition Government”. I am sure that this commitment was sincere, and Mr Pickles has used his powers to turn down several major developments in the green belt.
But protecting the green belt is not easy: it is in the nature of economically vibrant towns to sprawl into the countryside, and only the green belt stands in the way. Moreover, the Government’s support for the green belt can clash with its commitment to localism, as many local authorities want to build on it or casually redraw its boundaries.
A report published today by the Campaign to Protect Rural England shows that the green belt in England is being eroded at an alarming rate, in spite of the Government’s good intentions. (Planning policy is a devolved responsibility, but green belts are also under great pressure in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.)
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that green belt boundaries are permanent and should be altered only in “exceptional circumstances”. Development in the green belt should be allowed only in “very special circumstances”. But our report reveals that if developments now likely are added to those given planning permission since the general election, more than 80,000 houses, seven new roads and 1,000 hectares of business parks and warehouses are set to be built in the green belt.
Many proposals are in northern areas with plenty of previously developed brownfield land available close by – places such as Chester, Dewsbury, Wigan, Widnes and Southport, some of which could do with regeneration, rather than seeing economic activity drifting to the countryside. One of the purposes of the green belt is “to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land”.
Official figures show that there is suitable brownfield land available for 1.5 million new homes, and still more for commercial and industrial development. Much of this is in the most pressured areas — enough for 400,000 homes in London, for instance — and the stock of brownfield land is growing all the time. A strong green belt encourages developers to use this land and improve urban areas. A weak green belt undermines towns, as well as destroying countryside.
The vast majority of green belt is open countryside, still rural in character despite being close to London, Birmingham and other cities. This “ordinary countryside” is as precious as our great national parks but it is under serious attack, from day-to-day planning proposals and from a Chancellor who is too ready to blame planning for bigger economic difficulties. It is down to Eric Pickles — backed, I hope, by the Prime Minister — to live up to the Government’s commitments and act to save the green belt.