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  EWHC 2643 (Admin) and Fordent Holdings Ltd v SSCLG  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.
© MARTIN H GOODALL