What Options Does Phillip Hammond have to ‘Do Something’ on the Green Belt? @SajidJavid @GavinBarwell

The Treasury always wants Planning Reform.

Given that so many ‘reforms’ – like build what you like where you like – outside the Green Belt resulted only in a modest uptick in housing completions the Treasury are always going to come back to the Green Belt.

If ‘regulatory restrictions’ on housebuilding are seen as the problem then the Green Belt is the biggest and most obvious one.

The Green Belt is hard to reform.  It is a national non statutory policy but locally defined – its boundary only changing through local plans.  Which means that although any government could abolish it in a single speech reform of the Green Belt is much much harder as reforms need to be implemented through local plans – which as we all know take forever.   It is particularly hard to force changes to local plans by unwilling authorities, unless you contrive a situation that pretty much forces local authorities to make tough choices for fear of worse consequences, as with the NPPF and ‘build what you like where you like’ (BWYLWYL).  But BWYLWYL never applied to the Green Belt, resulting in much less incentive to Green Belt authorities to review plans.  If you were to relax the rules on what is allowed on Green Belt – such as housing – it is tantamount to its abolition.

Abolition would be totemic.  The public, and Daily Telegraph Picture Editors, sadly and wrongly thinks every  field in England is Green Belt, and its abolition or crude relaxation would set off the Shires like nothing else.   It would be politically unwise to do so when you have a tiny majority.

Which is why it is unwise to charge full on at the Green Belt – it is a lot of potential political pain.

The Green Belt, one of the key tools of the post war planning settlement, has become a problem though.  It was designed to serve a purpose, to protect some areas from sprawl whilst diverting development elsewhere, to New Towns and Growth Areas beyond the Green Belt when dispersal was the policy and brownfield sites within cities when regeneration was the priority.  However with the falling away of regional planning the positive shaping function fell away and the negative stop development function became its only justification.   Either the Green Belt shapes and diverts development to better locations or it becomes a straight jacket.

The Green Belts purpose was always ambiguous from its outset.  In the 1960s the MHLG produced a pamphlet extolling the virtues of the Green Belt in stopping beautiful land being developed, whilst at the same time National Policy has always stated that the condition and beauty of land was irrelevant to stopping sprawl.  Campaigning bodies estoll ‘our Green Belt’ for providing Public Access and acting as @green Lungs’ a dangerous tactic – is Green Belt with no public access and not currently near homes not ‘our Green Belt’ and somehow fair game?

So sweeping stroke of a pen national reform of the Green Belt would imply that the government is seeking to change the form of cities – a dangerous thing for the treasury to do without any research or strategy.  As they should know very large cities cost far more per capita to service with infrastructure as they expand and beyond a certain point the diseconomies of urban expansion cot the economy more than the boost provided by more housebuilding.

The Treasury should be aware of two other arguments against sweeping reform of the Green Belt. Firstly my own research has shown the amount of good developable land in the Metropolitan (london) Green Belt is far less than people think. So many sites are protected for Landscape reasons (AONB) have flood risk etc.  Whilst good sites served by infrastructure, trains stations etc. (even if the lines had capacity) are few and far between.   The gaps between towns on the London fringe are narrow.  Experience has shown that modest adjustments to the Green Belt here can be and have been carried out successfully without undermining the Green Belt, but there isn’t the space for very large scale development in most of the Green Belt which is needed to meet the national housing shortage.  It i of a scale from london Overspill and 40 years of underproviding housing that you need land for over 5 million houses over 20 years.  This require large areas for new cities, not thin slivers between Esher and Weybridge (for example).  The second argument is modest changes to the Green Belt is happening anyway through many local plan reviews, be patient and there will be just a few stubborn hold outs like South Oxfordshire.  Even areas like Coventry which withdrew its local plan following a change in political control eventually came back to reviewing its Green belt and designating 10%, on the high side nationally, 3-5% is typical in authorities reviewing Green Belt.  Except in the North West (where the largest scale of loss is proposed) te political blow back has been minimal.

Here is the crux of teh problem because Green belt is only a major problem in those few areas where there is little alternative to meeting strategic growth and housing need.  The likes of Tandridge, North of Oxford, East of Cambridge, St Albans, Hemel Hempstead.

So if you are going to reform the Green Belt

  1. Sell it as reform to save the Green Belt, with modest losses designed to save its integrity in the long term
  2. Go with the grain of local plan led reviews, give it a push, such as abolishing for good the ‘Boles Doctrine’ that local authorities can choose not to review the Green Belt and treat Green Belt as an absolute planning constraint whatever the circumstances.
  3. Again go with the garin of the policy, it should only be changed in exceptional circumstances, in some areas where there is little other choice times are exceptional.
  4. Green Belt is only a small part of the overall solution.  Which has to be led by building large scale developments such as Garden Cities, lead on this.  this allows you to say you are expanding the Green Belt around such places, for a massive increase in Green belt overall as compensation for limited relaxation is areas where there is little alternative but to designate. My research suggests 7:1 can be achieved in terms of New green Belt/Loss of Green Belt whilst still meeting housing need in full.
  5. One step at a time, use the announcements of the Oxford MK Cambridge Strategy in your budget to lead, looking at existing GB review and New GB in the round.  Other areas will clamour to follow, wanting housing and infrastructure funding as they do. The Carrot of funding leading strategic consortia of local authorities to make the decisions themselves
  6. Support those local decisions where justified (as the Government has done in Birmingham and Coventry)
  7. Make clear that beautiful countryside, biodiverse countryside. common land etc. is forever sacrosanct.
  8. Make clear that sprawl will alway be bad for the economy and bad for Britain, and that the approach being pioneered in the Oxford MK Cambridge Strategy is the opposite of that.
  9. Give existing reviews a push by strengthening the Duty to Cooperate so that hold outs like South Staffs and South Oxfordshire have instead a ‘duty to strategize’ to set up democratic governance arrangements with majority voting that will agree a joint strategy for meeting strategic objectives across an are of more than one local authority, where an adjoining authority makes a request that those needs be met.
  10. Make clear that any are where Green Belt boundaries are relaxed such see a net increase in biodiversity and access to open land.

Despite this Story the ‘Portas Pilots’ did make a small statistical difference

17% of shop closed in them as opposed to 22% nationally


Mary Portas’ “Save the High Street” campaign has failed, figures show, as the towns under her watch have lost nearly a thousand shops in five years.

The Government-backed program saw 12 towns handed a portion of a £1.2 million grant and support from the retail guru and Ministers, in a bid to transform them into thriving retail hubs.

But since its launch in 2012 the towns have lost nearly one in five of their shops, the Local Data Company has found, around the same rate of decline as the rest of the country.

Following the disclosure Portas has accused the Government of using her campaign as a PR exercise.

She claimed it was used to create the impression that efforts were being made to revive Britain’s high streets, when in fact no policies were created at all.

And last night the self-proclaimed “Queen of Shops” renewed calls for Phillip Hammond to scrap business rates, recent increases to which she has said would kill one in three shops. She also described the move as

She told the Daily Telegraph: “It feels like there was this great splash from Government, that they were getting behind businesses. But they can’t say that and then treble rates – they need to think about the effects on business.

“We need real policy change. Business needs to be at the heart of planning as the Government decides what kind of country we want to live in because the high street is the heart of every community. With rising wages and increased import costs rates is the one area that can be sorted out by Government.”

The “Portas Pilot” town centres have shrunk as empty and failing shops have been taken out of use, a survey for BBC Radio 4’s You And Yours found.

The towns – Bedford, Croydon, Dartford, Greater Bedminster, Liskeard, Margate, Market Rasen, Nelson, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Stockport, Stockton-on-Tees and Wolverhampton – have seen a net loss of 969 retail units over the five years.

This is a drop of 17 per cent and the equivalent of one shop closing every 22 days. This is roughly the same rate of shop closures as towns around the country, data from Retail Futures shows. In the six years between 2012 and 2018 some 22 per cent of shops will have closed, its analysts found.

Ms Portas told You And Yours that she had hoped her review would highlight “the real issues” facing the UK’s town centres, and that Government would have been behind it with policy change.

She said: “That didn’t happen. It was a weighted PR campaign which looked like ‘hey, we’re doing something’ and I hoped it might kick-start something – but it didn’t.”

The initiative was led by Business in the Community, which is one of Prince Charles’ charities, and received funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government.