England’s Home Counties are facing their “greatest threat” with plans to build new homes on more than 200 sites on the protected Green Belt, campaigners are warning.
A report to be published this week from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has uncovered blueprints for more than 123,000 new homes on 203 sites in the London Green Belt.
More than nine out of 10 sites have been allocated by councils under pressure from “unclear national planning guidance and confusing government messages”, the charity said.
CPRE warned that the figure could be an underestimate as only two-thirds of local authorities were surveyed for the report, entitled “Safe Under Us?”.
There was also evidence that planning inspectors were telling councils the Green Belt cannot be a “constraint” on development.
The Green Belt is the protected ribbon of land around towns and cities intended to prevent urban sprawl.
The London Metropolitan Green Belt is one of 14 Green Belts in England. It covers 514,040 hectares and is more than 60 years old.
The report said that most of the 203 sites “are allocated in Local Plans documents, so the threats are real”.
It added: “Already some areas of Green Belt have lost their designation, a number of sites are threatened with planning permission, while others are being built or have already been built.”
The report found in Hertfordshire 84,000 hectares (207,000 acres) are under threat, as well as 121,000 hectares (300,000 acres) in Surrey and 97,000 hectares (240,000 acres) in Essex.
CPRE blamed the threats on councils using a demand for more housing as justification for building on the Green Belt in “exceptional circumstances”, which is a loophole in new planning rules from 2012.
The campaign group said that “national pressure” was being applied “to deliver inflated housing targets. These targets are being inflated by unrealistic economic growth targets , forcing councils to give up Green Belt land”.
The problems were being “exacerbate by the effects of land-banking”, it said, adding: “Companies, having obtained planning permission, hoard the land until the profit forecast has been achieved. They then sell it on to a developer at an inflated price.”
The report concluded: “The planning system is not able to protect Green Belt in the way it was intended and current policies will result in considerable areas of Green Belt being lost.”
It urged the Government to stop councils using the “exceptional circumstances” clause in the National Planning Policy Framework to justify building on the Green Belt.Richard Knox-Johnston, chairman of the London Green Belt Council, said: “Promises were made in the Conservative general election manifesto that the Green Belt would be ‘safe under us’.
“However, councils are telling their residents that there is no alternative but to build in the Green Belt.
“Our evidence shows that in spite of the Government’s promise, councils are responding to a series of national messages and policies which forces them to release Green Belt land to receive financial incentives and avoid sanctions.
“The system is clearly not working and is not protecting the Green Belt. It seems likely that the government target of two million homes by 2020 will not be met due to land-banking and hoarding.
“By not taking action to unlock the land which already has planning permission, more pressure is being put on Green Belt land.
“We now need government to appreciate that this situation is not acceptable and to introduce measures to reinstate the protection of Green Belt as a matter of urgency.”
A Communities and Local Government Department spokesmen said: “These claims are totally misleading as they are based purely on projections in Local Plans, including Plans not yet adopted.
“We have been absolutely clear that councils must prioritise development on brownfield land.”
A source said: “We’ve been repeatedly clear that demand for housing alone will not justify changing Green Belt boundaries. (sigh when will they ever get the difference between the very special circumstances test – for planni ng applications – which NPPG makes clear has no housing need exemption and the exceptional circumstances test
“Councils are expected to prioritise development on brownfield with 90 per cent of suitable sites expected to have planning permission for new homes by 2020.”
In May, Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, pledged to protect the Green Belt land in and around London from developers.
Mr Khan said: “It is vitally important we protect our city’s precious green spaces and that must include opposing building on the Green Belt.
“I’ve now met with my team of planners to make absolutely clear that this must stay at the forefront of planning decisions.
“Ensuring everyone in our city, especially young people, has access to green spaces from parks and playing fields to community gardens is vitally important.”