Green Belt a Promise that Cannot be Kept?

In the Guardian Hannah Fearn responds to the reports by the CPRE that the amount of Green Belt loss in local plans has doubled in a year to over 150,000.

Now [the coalition]faces claims it is reneging on promises made once again. These were, however, never promises the government could keep. The purpose of localism, and the simplification of planning guidelines, is to allow local authorities to tackle their own local problems in the way they see fit. Having carried out local assessments, councils now concede that demand is so high it is essential to use a small section of green belt land in order to meet the housing needs of residents. It’s not the government that is responsible for a change in policy on the green belt – but that’s exactly why it shouldn’t have made such a commitment in the first place.

She concludes

The green belt was designed to protect areas of natural beauty, but not to strangle our urban heartlands. It has become an inflexible policy, easily abused by the nimby brigade

Certainly the pressure on the government over Green Belt will only increase.  The formation of the All Party Green Belt Group has already seen one animated Westminster Hall debate, and given that over 1/3rd of local authorities have yet to deposit or finalise their plans the figure could easily rise to over 250,000 houses next year.  In the next few weeks Cheltenham/Gloucester/Tewksbury and Birmingham will announce plans that would see over 10,000 houses built on the Green Belt.

The prime minister has pointed the All Party Group to a landmark appeal decision at Thundersley where the Secretary of State refused a development, even though the area had a shortage of housing, because the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) says changes to Green Belt boundaries should only be made through local plans, but the local plan process is forcing all local authorities, even those that have stuck firm, to amend them to include Green Belt reviews as the NPPF requires all plans to meet ‘in full’ the objective need for housing.  Local authorities are easy to blame the Planning Inspectorate for overruling them but the inspectorate are blameless as they sit in place of the minister implementing government policy.

The coalition agreement is basically toothless on Green Belt, it just says ‘We will maintain the Green Belt,…and other environmental protections’ it is not suggesting abolition of the Green Belt, so it is easily kept.  It is much weaker than Eric Pickles promise in 2011 that the Green Belt was ‘solid and absolutely inviolate’.

The key issue is whether or not there are realistic alternatives to development of the Green Belt.

Green Belt was never, until the NPPF was published, seen as an end in itself but a tool in a wider scheme of urban containment and development.  Hannah makes an error in stating that Green Belt is to protect areas of natural beauty, this has  has never been an aim of green belt policy, indeed the quality of land is immaterial to its Green Belt status, rather it is a policy of urban containment, a policy which was only sustainable so long as planning set out other places for development to go. It no longer does, we no longer have regional planning, we no longer have new town, we no longer have concerted urban regeneration.

Indeed David Cameron in a speech in 2012 praised the  post-war Regional Plan of Patrick Abercrombie that saw London’s Green Belt established and a string of New Towns.  Some irony in that abolishing regional planning saw a plunge of over 300,000 in the number of houses planned rather than a positive localist response, now with ‘muscular localism’ to use Pickles phrase local plans are being strongarmed to increase release of land for housing, even if it is Green Belt, and minister are sanguine about this.

With the abolition of regional planning the only way you could get the kind of strategy that Abercrombie pioneered is through the voluntary cooperation of local authorities under the government’s duty to cooperate.  Many plans have recently been judged by planning inspectors to fall foul of this, and indeed plan adoption has almost crawled to a halt as a result.  London and Birmingham are seeking land for overspill from the adjoining areas, mostly met with a deafening silence. The duty to cooperate has turned out to be a rats in a sack exercise without the guiding hand of government to force or suggest deals.  European law forces consideration of alternative strategies to minimise environmental impact of these are ‘reasonable alternatives’,  But new guidance on the duty to cooperate issued by the government last week says what should happen when your neighbours don’t agree on a wider strategy, then you should consider ‘every alternative’ – which could easily mean building on Green Belt rather than a new town or urban extensions beyond it.  It is difficult to square this cop out from a regional approach with the European law requirement.

National Policy requires an assessment of what is the most sustainable option, developing in or beyond the Green Belt.  Unfortunately the assessment almost never take a broad enough canvas or strategies a long enough horizon to enable this to be done.  In many cases there will be little choice but to have some Green Belt release, in Gloucestershire for Example you have the Cotswolds on one side and the Forest of Dean and Severn Estuary on the other somewhat limiting your options.  In other cases though such as the Sutton Coalfield Green Belt east of Birmingham there are clear and most sustainable alternatives to building in the Green Belt next to Motorways, they just arnt in the same local authority area.  It is this inability of the new system to look at a broader canvas that led me last year to correctly predict  that the abolition of regional planning would double pressure on the Green Belt because of how much harder it is now to look at alternatives beyond.  At the time the government said, and repeated it last week, that abolition had protected 30 areas of Green Belt, my analysis shows that all of these where Green Belt was proposed for review are now being review or have been forced to schedule reviews by 2016, therefore abolition has not securely protected one hectare of land.

Sop what are the alternatives?  Broadly two, significant urban intensification within cities or Garden Cities, connected by sustainable transport, beyond.

By the first alternative I dont mean just a bit of sprucing up of towns, seeking a shift in preferences for urban living, and restricting greenfield development until every last inch of brownfield has been developed, the kind of approach suggested by the Rogers Urban Taskforce.  This wont be enough, there just isn’t enough brownfield land in the right places, For example at typical urban densities the amount of brownfield land in the south east is barely one years supply of housing at the current rates.  Such stylistic urbanism is not enough.  Given land constraints in areas of high growth intensification will only be sufficient where it can lead to development of such a scale that it can replace many square miles of Green Belt loss, which requires developments to Vancouver or Singapore like densities, 20, 30, 40 storeys plus.  This kind of density is simply physically impossible without rapid transit systems other wise there will be huge congestion.  This is only realistic in a few areas such as Nottingham, Leeds, Liverpool, The Lea Valley in London, the Don Valley in Sheffield etc, This would require a national investment plan of the kind being developed by many merging economies recognizing the major benefits to their economies by urban economies of density and scale.    This would also have a long lead in time.

The second alternative is Garden Cities, the government seem to have gone quiet on the idea after initial enthusiasm, there seems no sign of the promised prospectus and Boles the Planning Minister has said oddly they arn’t a priority for government investment.   Without government sponsored and empowered delivery bodies they wont take off.   No conservative government has really pushed new settlements and it seems this is no different.  Again though they have very long lead in times, which means that our legacy of 20 years without firm long term planning for housing must mean at least in the short term a major loss of Green Belt.  Don’t rule out a u-turn especially if George Osborne, who once launched a Policy Exchange pamphlet calling for abolition of the Green Belt (commissioned by Nick Boles current minister for housing), loses influence, or the politics around one of the really big Green Belt loss proposals, such as Birmingham, get too hot.

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