Monday, 6 October 2014

Government’s U-turn “to save the Green Belt”

You can tell there’s an election coming. Even though ministers and their advisers are well aware that there is an urgent need to release land, including Green Belt land, to meet the requirements for housing land, De-CLoG has issued a statement in which they once again trot out the old mantra that, once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional cases.

Eric Pickles is quoted as saying: “Protecting our precious green belt must be paramount. Local people don’t want to lose their countryside to urban sprawl, or see the vital green lungs around their towns and cities lost to unnecessary development.” [Translation: “We know the NIMBYs are wrong really, but they might go and vote for UKIP, so at all costs we are going to say and do whatever it takes to get the Tory defectors back into fold, even though it makes a complete nonsense of our pledge to get more houses built. Getting ourselves re-elected has to come first.”]

Uncle Eric and his friends have suddenly re-discovered ‘Localism’ and are claiming that “Local Plans are now at the heart of the reformed, democratic planning system, so councils can decide where development should and shouldn’t go in consultation with local people.”.

Planning officers can naturally be expected to take a more objective view of these matters, because they have to work out a way of planning for the housing needs of their localities, but this had led them (unsurprisingly) to recommend to their authorities that some Green Belt land will have to be released in order to meet objectively assessed targets (even though these are no longer set by central government.) But to counter this, the government’s on-line guidance has been amended to read that assessing need is just the first stage in the preparation of a council’s local plan, and that in assessing the suitability of land to meet the identified need for housing over the plan period, they “should take account of any constraints such as Green Belt which indicate that development should be restricted and which may restrain the ability of an authority to meet its need”.

This makes it quite clear that having objectively assessed housing need in their area, LPAs should feel free to ignore it, if is politically inexpedient to release green field sites (and particularly some parts of the Green Belt) in order to allocate sufficient land to meet their housing need. If this advice is to be taken at face value, it would appear that the government is abandoning the requirement that LPAs must demonstrate that they have a five-year housing land supply, plus a 5% margin (six years’ supply in cases where council’s have failed to produce sufficient housing land in the past, in the form of committed schemes) if they can excuse themselves by pointing to constraints such as the Green Belt (or any other plausible excuses). It also seems to let them off the hook of having to co-operate with neighbouring authorities in the provision of housing land, even though the 2011 Act requires them to do so.

This is bad news for house-builders, and it is bad news for first-time buyers. It also makes a nonsense of recent legislative and policy changes which were directed at securing the provision of adequate housing land. But then, as I said, we are now in the run-up to the General Election, and I did predict a major U-turn sooner or later in this pre-election period. This latest ministerial statement seems to herald that U-turn, and there will no doubt be more to come, as an increasingly panic-stricken Tory Party thrashes about trying to find something, anything, that might secure a few more votes and get them across the winning line next May.


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