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
- Sell it as reform to save the Green Belt, with modest losses designed to save its integrity in the long term
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Support those local decisions where justified (as the Government has done in Birmingham and Coventry)
- Make clear that beautiful countryside, biodiverse countryside. common land etc. is forever sacrosanct.
- 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.
- 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.
- Make clear that any are where Green Belt boundaries are relaxed such see a net increase in biodiversity and access to open land.