Sunday, 2 September 2012

Green Belts up for grabs?

George Osborne seems to love nothing more than to upstage Eric Pickles who (at the time of writing at least) is nominally responsible for town planning, among his other responsibilities as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. ‘Boy’ George was deprived of the opportunity of pre-empting the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework on Budget Day earlier this year, but he took great delight on the Andrew Marr show on BBC1 this morning in announcing proposals for a significant relaxation of planning policy, which could lead to development in England’s hitherto sacred Green Belts. He called for "imaginative" thinking on the part of local planning authorities, to enable development on land which is currently off-limits to builders.

The government has a current gap in its legislative timetable, as a result of Tory back-benchers having killed off House of Lords reform, and so the intention is to shove a Bill through parliament, starting in the next couple of weeks, which will comprise or include the proposed relaxation of the planning regime. The government is clearly in a hurry over this (due to the panic in Whitehall over the sickly state of the economy) and it seems that they intend to rush this Bill through parliament with a view to its receiving Royal Assent by late October. That’s fast going by any measure. Publication of the Bill is expected next week.

Further legislation is promised to follow on from this, including an “Economy Bill” which may include further planning changes.

Osborne denied that the government is about to tear up the National Planning Policy Framework so soon after publishing it, but they are clearly looking to create greater flexibility over the designation of Green Belts and the adjustment of Green Belt boundaries. Those who follow this blog will be aware of the High Court judgments which have confirmed the extremely limited scope for adjusting Green Belt boundaries at present; so the removal of the current strait-jacket would be welcome. The Prime Minister has expressed a willingness in another recent interview to take on the NIMBYs in order to get more housing built, and so Osborne would appear to be relaying His Master’s Voice, even if there are members (currently) in the Cabinet who may not be altogether happy about this new initiative, not to mention all the usual suspects who made such a song and dance over the original draft version of the NPPF.

As readers will be well aware, I am no supporter of this government (or of any other), but I am quite encouraged by this news, which marks yet another step towards the adoption of the planning agenda I set out in an imagined speech by ‘James Hacker MP’ before the last General Election [see “REAL Reform of the Planning System” - Tuesday, 20 April 2010]. In that piece, my alter ego said this (slightly edited):

“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. I reaffirm that objective; but two undesirable elements have crept into our Green Belt policies over the years.

First, the Green Belts have been expanded to a far greater extent 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.

I shall require local planning authorities as part of the Development Plan process to revise Green Belt boundaries. In future, there will be a very strong presumption against further extensions of existing Green Belts. There should, on the other hand, be regular reviews of both the inner and outer boundaries of Green Belts to examine the desirability of removing further land from the Green Belt if changed circumstances require this. Green Belt boundaries should no longer be regarded as fixed for all time.

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 propose 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 very special circumstances being required to justify the development. I want to emphasise that Green Belts are not and never have been intended to create wholly development-free zones in the countryside.”

Whether the government will go quite that far remains to be seen. What is certain is that, however urgent their intention, the government will face some vociferous opposition from the nay-sayers. Perhaps the PM should quote the words I wrote as the peroration of James Hacker’s speech: “The course on which the government is now embarked may involve slaughtering a few sacred cows, and I can already hear the screams of agony from certain special interest groups, who have become accustomed to regard the planning system as a useful tool for resisting change. But such protests will not deter us from our intent to carry through these reforms, so as to produce a planning system that is truly responsive to the needs of society, and which will produce the development that we need, in the right place and at the right time, in order both to boost the economy and to provide decent homes for our citizens.”



  1. Another excellent piece! I have just won an appeal for a single house at the end of a 'washed-over' village and apparently the planners are so aghast they are muttering about a JR; despite the land being scarred by foundations of buildings only torn down and levelled across the site as recently as the 60s. GB Policy HAS to become a lot more pragmatic.

  2. As a layperson reading the NPPF re green belts I am struck by a dissonance between the "new buildings" which a local planning authority should regard the as
    inappropriate in Green Belt and the concept of limited extensions to existing buildings as an exception to this.

    The wording does not say that development is inappropriate subject to certain exceptions. Nor does it say that new building is inappropriate.

    Is there some special planning law definition which deems the alteration or extension of an existing building to be a new building? If not, surely there is a defect in the wording "A local planning authority should regard the construction of new buildings as
    inappropriate in Green Belt." which renders the exception "the extension or alteration of a building provided that it does not result in
    disproportionate additions over and above the size of the original building;" unecessary?

    I concede this might leave extensions and alterations in somewhat of a limbo between appropriate and inappropriate but might it mean hat the only grounds for refusal in green belt terms would become "other harms " ?

    Has anyone ever argued this point?

  3. I am afraid that this is a case where planning professionals will be very familiar with these distinctions (which were previously set out in PPG2, and have been well understood for many years) whereas a lay person can be forgiven for not understanding what is in reality a rather technical and perhaps rather artificial concept. Regrettably, time does not allow me to attempt to explain it here.

    Incidentally, the practical answer to the question posed in the heading to this item turned out to be "No".

  4. I guessed as much, very little in planning seems to bear its plain and ordinary meaning! On the face of it it looks like extensions and alterations were originally forgotten about when PPG2 (or whatever it was designated in its original form) was drafted and the wording was shoved into that paragraph without sufficient thought about whether it more properly deserved a paragraph of its own in order to make better sense. Interestingly I note the word dwellings is absent.

  5. I never had any difficulty in understanding the terminology of PPG2, but I suppose I have become thoroughly accustomed to planners’ jargon. The general thrust of the policy advice in PPG2 (as revised, before its replacement by the NPPF, which in essence repeats its contents) was based on the judgment in Pehrsson, which put a very much more restrictive interpretation on the original wording of ministerial Green Belt policy compared with the previous view, which had been reflected in an earlier judgment in Cranford Hall Parking. I have always deprecated the very restrictive interpretation of Green Belt policy since Pehrsson, but it seems we are stuck with it.