Thursday, 8 May 2014

Common sense about the Green Belt

I get the impression that there is a gradual dawning of realisation, not only within certain think tanks but also among ministers and their advisers, that Green Belt policy has been allowed to get out of hand, and that far too much land has been designated as Green Belt, with the result that there is no longer sufficient land readily available near existing towns and cities to meet the urgent requirement for house-building where it is needed. The penalty is a chronic housing shortage and spiralling house prices, particularly in the South-east of England.

The original object of establishing the Green Belt was to discourage uncontrolled urban sprawl into the open countryside around our larger towns and cities and to prevent the coalescence of two or more large neighbouring towns. No-one would disagree with that broad objective; but two undesirable elements have crept into 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. I recall, for instance, massive extensions to the Green Belt in Surrey in the 1980s for which there was no need and no objective justification. Our Green Belts now encompass huge areas of land that ought never to have been incorporated in them.

There needs to be a fundamental review of the extent of the Green Belt throughout the country, with a view to reducing substantially the extent of their designated area. This review should proceed on the presumption that extensions of Green Belts that have occurred within the past 35 years should be reversed unless there are very convincing reasons for those extensions, having regard to the primary objective of the Green Belts.

Local political pressures are so strong that it would be impracticable for this to be dealt with at a local level. This is an exercise that will have to be carried out on a national level by central government. Notions of localism are simply going to have to be suspended, if not abandoned altogether as totally unrealistic in face of the dire housing crisis facing the country. Local planning authorities should be required to revise Green Belt boundaries in accordance with the conclusions of this departmental review.

In future, there should 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.

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 or exceptional circumstances can be demonstrated. This rigidity has been further compounded by the unfortunate wording of the relevant policy guidance in the NPPF, compared with the wording of the former PPG2. [See Europa Oil and Gas Limited v. SSCLG [2013] EWHC 2643 (Admin) and Fordent Holdings Ltd v SSCLG [2013] EWHC 2844 (Admin), referred to in this blog on Friday, 1 November 2013 – “Inappropriate Development in the Green Belt”.]

Rather than this increasingly inflexible approach, the advice in the NPPF should 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. The essential point is that Green Belts are not and never have been intended to create wholly development-free zones in the countryside.

There is one other issue that also needs to be addressed when considering Green Belt boundaries. Over the years a number of anomalies have been created by inept drawing of the Green Belt boundaries. There are quite a few examples, for instance, of the Green Belt boundary cutting across the middle of a residential curtilage. This makes no sense at all, and should be corrected. A related problem is the drawing of a thick line on small-scale maps, with the result that it is impossible to tell with any precision where the Green Belt boundary actually lies. This is an issue that can be addressed by local planning authorities right now, without having to wait for any change of ministerial policy. In their Delivery DPDs (or equivalent DPDs, following adoption of their Core Strategies), local planning authorities should take the opportunity of ironing out anomalies of this sort in the detailed Green Belt boundary at a local level. This is an issue that must be urgently addressed, and not merely in relation to recently fixed Green Belt boundaries, but also in respect of boundaries where these anomalies have existed for a good many years. Local councils really must grasp this nettle, or face the possibility of challenges by way of judicial review if they fail to address the point in their second stage DPDs.

Revision of the NPPF (and/or of the NPPG, as appropriate) should reiterate the principle that the Green Belt boundary should be established on a strong defensible line. This should be a clearly defined and reasonably permanent physical feature in the landscape, such as a river, road or railway. Drawing the boundary across the middle of fields or gardens is totally unsatisfactory, and even field boundaries may not be sufficiently permanent to form a reliable long-term boundary. At the very least, the Green Belt boundary should exclude existing residential development (except in settlements where the Green Belt ‘washes over’ the entire village) and this exclusion must extend to the whole of the residential curtilage. What is required is not a straight line but a clearly defined and readily defensible boundary, even if this may look untidy on a map.

The knee-jerk reaction, both locally from the NIMBYs and nationally from the usual suspects, such as the CPRE, whenever any reform or relaxation of Green Belt policy is suggested must be ignored. These people have become accustomed to regard the planning system as a useful tool for resisting change. But such protests should not deter either this government or its successors after the General Election next year from carrying through this necessary reform of Green Belt policy, so as to enable the essential expansion of housing development around our towns and cities.



  1. Martin, Thank you as usual.

    Para 89 of the NPPF allows for the redevelopment of previously developed sites in the Green Belt. This is much more pragmatic than PPG2 and creates development opportunities provided that the replacement buildings are not materially larger than those they replace. There are some very positive appeal decisions circulating in this respect, although LPA's are still in denial generally.

  2. I agree with pretty much everything you say - but think it might be better said again a little over a year from now...

  3. Very interesting blog Martin, many thanks.

  4. The loudest voices will prevail, the government is afraid of upsetting the likes of the CPRE and NIMBYs even if it is clear that we are protecting land that is privately owned for a public that has no access to it so there is no amenity value at a time when we desperately need more housing yet 40% Of England remains preserved in aspic. And don't get me going on green wedges. I apologise for the rambling but I'm busy on a project to reform English national parks, the ultimate fossilising planning madhouse.

  5. I think it's time that green belt policy was consigned to the history books. Planning policies in terms of protection of countryside have moved on to the point where a specific green belt policy is unnecessary. Entirely removing green belt policy (a national policy) is also clearly the localist answer by leaving Councils and communities free to protect or otherwise their undeveloped land.

  6. I have to say I whole-heartedly agree with every last word of your article.

    If you want an even better example of the absurd extent of current green belts than the London one, just google 'nottingham and derby green belt' and the first item is a pdf of the 2006 review, with a handy map on its first page. The extent of the green belt east and south of Nottingham is a travesty. It has and continues to lead to many examples of 'town' cramming elsewhere, especially in the River Erewash valley between Nottingham and Derby.

    I’m local to the area and could give you many examples of housing that's sprung up in the last 30 years which, amongst other things, have eroded settlement identity and removed areas of openness of great value to the quality of the living environment – precisely the kind of harm that green belt status is meant to fend off through its ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ implementation.

    In Broxtowe and Erewash Districts – either side of the River Erewash – space for a disproportionate amount of the demands of the Nottingham housing market has been found. This has generally led to a density of living (and employment) that the transport system doesn't cope with, and which couldn’t unless extremely expensive and highly intrusive improvements are carried out. I’m sure this is a common occurrence as a result of all the bloated green belts.

    Of course, this will matter not one jot to the districts of, Gedling, Rushcliffe, and Newark and Sherwood, who are the chief beneficiaries of this corrupted policy in respect of the Nottingham-Derby green belt. In fact compare what’s going on with Nottingham with the situation at Derby, which has no green belt to the west and south and rightly so – just goes to prove it doesn’t need over-egging!

    It’s not a dissimilar outcome to the tale of the M64. This was never built, blocked as it was by the inhabitants of the rural area south of Stoke, through whose back yard it would have gone. Still, something had to be done to facilitate traffic movement between the M1 and M6, the result being the A50 straight through Stoke (or, more appositely, an atrocious living environment and congestion for 10,000’s as opposed to a slightly worse environment for a few hundred).

    What planning policy gives to some with one hand, it takes away from others with the other hand. This lesson is least of all understood by those who gain.

  7. The green belt issue is also compounded by tendencies to designate all but huge villages as washed over, regard edge of village sites as subject to "open countryside" restrictions even where a village is inset, and last of all to use poor transport sustainability and the mantra of "one (or any single digit number) house(s) won't help to meet the housing targets" to resist any new development.

  8. Agree that Green Belt rules are too rigidly applied but don't agree that it should be abandoned completely - the 'Philistines' who are more interested in money than keeping a decent amount of the countryside would have us covered in concrete from end to end if there were no rules!