Tuesday, 23 August 2011
Green Belt rethink ?
In his regular column in Planning magazine on 12 August, Tony Fyson drew attention to the impact assessment associated with the recently published draft NPPF, which indicates that changes to the planning system could lead to greater development on the green belt. Fyson also pointed out that the text of the NPPF itself also refers to “drawing up or reviewing green belt boundaries”. This raises the possibility that there might in future be scope for some flexibility both in relation to green belt boundaries and also as to the acceptability of some development with the green belt.
Before anyone gets too excited about this, it should be remembered that the current rigidity both as regards green belt boundaries and as regards the rules for development within the green belt were not part of the original concept of the green belt. They are comparatively recent innovations in the 70+ years since green belts began to be set up.
I put some radical ideas in the mouth of ‘Jim Hacker’ in my pre-election piece on Real Reform of the Planning System [Tuesday, 20 April 2010]. Whilst they went somewhat beyond what most people would find acceptable, some of the ideas canvassed there might well be worthy of consideration.
The original object of our Green Belts was to discourage urban sprawl into the open countryside around our larger towns and cities and to prevent the coalescence of two or more large neighbouring towns. That is an objective which would no doubt be universally supported; but two undesirable elements have crept into our Green Belt policies over the years.
First, the Green Belts have been expanded much further than was originally intended and to a far greater extent than is necessary to achieve their objective. For example, the Metropolitan Green Belt around London was intended to be about 12 to 15 miles deep. In some places it is now well over 30 miles deep. Our Green Belts now encompass huge areas of land that ought never to have been incorporated in them. There is therefore a case to be made for reviewing green belt boundaries more thoroughly than has so far been contemplated.
Green belt boundaries should be kept under review in the same way as other planning designations. The current rule that they should be changed only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ is far too rigid, and takes no account of changed circumstances, not to mention anomalies and inconsistencies at specific places on the green belt boundary which ought to be ironed out.
The second undesirable element that has crept into Green Belt policy is an entirely unnecessary and inappropriate rigidity in the treatment of development proposals, which seeks to resist all development in the Green Belt unless either it is deemed to be ‘appropriate’ development (such as certain ‘green’ leisure uses) or ‘very special circumstances’ can be demonstrated. Rather than this somewhat inflexible approach, I suggest that government policy advice ought to be amended to indicate that within Green Belts development should not be permitted which would prejudice the objectives of the Green Belt and/or which would compromise its openness, but that in determining applications for development in the Green Belt local planning authorities should examine the contribution that the application site in question makes to the Green Belt (in other words, its ‘Green Belt value’). It would thus be the impact of the development on the Green Belt as a whole that would be the determining factor, rather than the ‘appropriateness’ of the development in the Green Belt (in land use terms) or any question of exceptional circumstances being required to justify the development. That was certainly the position for many years. It really does need to be emphasised that Green Belts are not and never have been intended to create wholly development-free zones in the countryside.
What I am suggesting is no more than a return to the approach which applied until at least 1990 (which was well-illustrated by Cranford Hall Parking Ltd v SSE  JPL 169), but I fear that ministers simply haven’t got the guts to take this up in face of the screaming tantrums that are likely to be thrown by all the usual suspects, such as the CPRE, and even nowadays the formerly staid National Trust.
© MARTIN H GOODALL