Boles seems to miss the key lynchpin of Green Belt policy, it is a policy of urban containment not of landscape protection, and as such ‘its ‘environmental value’ is not material to whether Green Belt should be maintained as Green Belt, all that matters to this is whether the policy of urban containment should be relaxed, and if so whether the sites in question are of value to green belt purposes. He even gets the test wrong, for plan led release its ‘very special circumstances’ not ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Developers should be allowed to build on fields if they are boring, the planning minister has said, after a fellow Tory minister accused him and David Cameron failing to protect the countryside.
In controversial comments, Nick Boles said people must be “realistic” about the need for more housing, which will mean building on “environmentally uninteresting” green spaces.
He made the remarks in a letter to Anna Soubry, a Conservative health minister, who wrote to his department to warn that housing is being built on the Green Belt despite David Cameron’s “repeated assurances” it will be protected.
Mr Boles underlined protections for the Green Belt but was unable to guarantee it will be safe in and around Mrs Soubry’s constituency, while arguing it is necessary to build on some fields.
“Given a two million increase in our population over the last ten years and historic under-provision of housing we have to be realistic that not all the housing that we as a country need can be on brownfield land,” he said. “In some places, this may mean buliding on low quality, environmentally uninteresting fields. In exceptional circumstances, it may involve a Green Belt review.”
The row underlines the concerns of many Tory MPs in rural constituencies, including the Prime Minister’s personal aide Sam Gyimah, who are fighting unwanted development.
However, Mrs Soubry is the first Conservative minister to say outright that the Coalition’s planning reforms and localism agenda are failing to protect the countryside.
Describing an “intolerable situation”, Mrs Soubry said planning inspectors are forcing local councils to accept more housing and build on Green Belt. She said up to 3,000 houses could be built in her own constituency of Broxtowe and a further swath in nearby Rushcliffe, whose MP is another Tory Cabinet minister, Ken Clarke.
Mrs Soubry wrote directly to Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, with a plea for him to give it his “urgent attention” as there is a “great disconnect” between the rhetoric of ministers and the reality of housing on the Green Belt.
“Notwithstanding the localism agenda, the National Planning Policy Framework, the abolition of the RSS [regional spatial strategies] and the repeated assurances of your good self and the Prime Minister that Green Belt land remains specially protected and should not be built on save in exceptional circumstances, local authorities like Rushcliffe and my own are unable to determine their own housing needs, set their own targets and protect their Green Belt land from development, ” she wrote to Mr Pickles.
“In short, assurances about localism and continuing protection for the Green Belt at ministerial level are flying in the face of advice from the inspectors leaving local authorities with no alternative but to agree to development on Green Belt land.”
Mr Pickles’s junior minister, Mr Boles, wrote back in reply, but was unable to give a concrete guarantee that the Green Belt land in the two Nottinghamshire constituencies would be safe.
The letter said councils are “in charge of their Green Belt” and the boundaries of protected areas will only be changed in “exceptional circumstances”.
However, he would only say planning guidelines in favour of sustainable development would not “automatically” override Green Belt protection and a council’s efforts to fight the housing will not “necessarily” fail.
Shaun Spiers, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, criticised the planning minister’s comments and accused the Government of being “in denial” about the scale of building on the countryside.
“What he classes as uninteresting fields might be essential for growing food or somewhere that people absolutely love walking their dog on or just looking at,” he said.
Mr Spiers also called on the Prime Minister to “intervene” to stop the “huge amount of development going up on the Green Belt”.
It is not the first time Mr Boles has provoked the ire of countryside-lovers. Earlier this year, he suggested housing provides more “human happiness” than fields.
Last night, a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said there are very strong protections for the Green Belt.
“Whilst we do not comment on individual correspondence between Ministers and MPs, the Government has repeatedly made clear very strong protections exist to safeguard the Green Belt and other areas, such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty,” he said.
“Local councils are in control of their Green Belt boundaries, through local plans, which this Government put at the heart of the planning system to allow communities to deliver the right development for their local area.”
Mr Boles, who became planning minister in the re-shuffle last year, is currently planning further changes to the rules to encourage house-building, including the controversial plan to give home owners compensation for neighbouring developments.
He has also set out plans to make it easier to allow agricultural barns and high street shops to be converted into residential housing.
The Government will also put pressure on developers to speed up building on land that has planning permission while “bullying” them into building “more beautiful” houses rather than “soulless, identikit rabbit hutches.”