Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Green Belt policy – the need for reform

Last week I came across a useful contribution to the Green Belt debate by Peter Village QC and Jonathan Darby, which you can access at

They call (as I and other commentators have done recently) for a sensible rethink of Green Belt policy, rather than the die-hard defence of existing Green Belt boundaries that ministers have lately adopted (undoubtedly for what they perceive as their short-term electoral advantage in the run-up to the General Election), irrespective of its proper role and value in policy terms, and irrespective of the consequences of such an unyielding approach in terms of unbuilt homes to meet the urgent needs of our population.

There are two important points that must be understood about the Green Belt. First, our Green Belts have been massively expanded within the past 30 to 40 years. The Green Belt was never intended to cover such vast swathes of land as it does now, and it really does need to be objectively reviewed and rolled back in some areas. Secondly, until the late 1980s, there was some flexibility in the application of Green Belt policy.

This was well illustrated by the judgment in Cranford Hall Parking Ltd v. SSE [1989] J.P.L. 169. Relevant policy at that time was set out in Circular 14/85, which was couched in language not dissimilar to later policy statements in PPG2, yet not in such absolute terms. The Circular pointed out quite clearly that the fact that a site was Green Belt land did not in itself constitute a clear-cut and sound reason for refusing permission. The court, in quashing an appeal decision which had refused planning permission for development in the Green Belt, held that the Inspector should have considered whether or not this development would bring about demonstrable harm to the Green Belt. Thus (at that time) development was not automatically unacceptable in the Green Belt; it was a question for the judgment of the decision-maker.

A similar decision was reached in Barnet Meeting Room Trust v SSE (1990) 60 P. & C.R. 137. In that case an Inspector had recommended that the Secretary of State should allow an appeal against the refusal of development in the Green Belt in these terms:

“I conclude that the development would not significantly detract from the character and appearance of the area, nor significantly threaten the integrity of the Metropolitan Green Belt, and that positive benefits would flow from the proposed landscape treatment of a former derelict site.”

The Inspector did recognise that, in a strict sense, the proposal would be unlikely to “preserve or improve the open nature of the area” in terms of the requirements set by para. 9.16 of the Greater London Development Plan. Nonetheless he recommended that on balance, and bearing in mind the established need for the development, the appeal should be allowed.

By this time, PPG2 in its original form had been published, and the Secretary of State’s decision letter, rejecting the Inspector’s recommendation, ended with the words: “The Secretary of State is of the opinion that, on balance, there are not the special circumstances to justify development in a Green Belt. Accordingly he disagrees with the recommendation.”

The Deputy Judge (Sir Frank Layfield QC) found that the Secretary of State had paid no great attention here to the need for consistency of decisions in comparable instances or to the need, when related decisions are cited to him, to provide reasons why those decisions should be regarded as either of no or limited value to the case under consideration. The learned Deputy Judge held that, very importantly in the Green Belt, the general presumption in favour of development applied (at that time) in favour of allowing applications for development as it did in other areas (relying on Cranford Hall Parking).

In that previous case there was a presumption derived from earlier circulars that were still current at that time that inappropriate development would not be permitted within the Green Belt and there were, no doubt, cases where the fact that the proposals were inappropriate and damaging to the interests of Green Belt policy would be self-evident. But the circular pointed out, quite clearly, that the fact it was in Green Belt land did not in itself constitute a clear cut and sound reason for refusing permission. The right approach was a presumption that planning permission would always be allowed which would be overridden where it was shown that the development would cause demonstrable harm to the Green Belt policy. In this regard, no reason or explanation had been given as to why the provisions of Circular 14/85 (which included the general presumption in favour of development) were not considered. Since development in the green belt was a question of fundamental importance, it was for that reason alone that this decision was quashed in the absence of adequate reasoning in that regard.

Those two cases were, of course, decided within a rather different policy context compared with that which obtains at present, and they have no practical application within the current policy regime; but they both serve to show that an alternative policy approach is perfectly workable, and would not involve a ‘free-for-all’ approach to development in the Green Belt. If the principles illustrated by those two cases were to be re-applied now (by means of revised ministerial policy on this issue), there would in future be an objective examination, as there used to be until the late 1980s, of the site’s ‘Green Belt value’, and consideration as to whether its development would cause demonstrable harm to the openness of the Green Belt (which is the primary objective of its designation as such). As I can clearly recall from the early days of my career as a planning lawyer, going back as far as 1979, appeals could be and in practice were allowed in appropriate cases where the site made no material contribution to the Green Belt and/or where its development would not cause any demonstrable harm to the openness of the Green Belt. The present rigid resistance to any development in the Green Belt, save only in the most exceptional circumstances, is unnecessary and undesirable.



  1. Of course, under the UK system the question of growth versus restraint is a political choice, not a planning judgement. And that’s the real root of the problem isn’t it? The situation would be slightly more tolerable if the politicians at least had a clear grasp of the differences between green belt/AONB/the countryside generally and some kind of spatial vision that extended beyond the Watford Gap!

  2. There is so much logic in this article, I would wager that the vast majority of the population would agree with you but as there is no lobby group to counter the hysteria of MPs and their loudest constituents, and the likes of CPRE of course, we can only watch the ministers withdraw each time they try to revisit the principle of protected landscapes that is strangling the economy.

  3. Its not just politicians that dont undestand the Green Belt, this is taken from an officer`s report....." ...the openness of Green Belt is understood to be defined by rural character of an undeveloped countryside which lacks urbanisation features and infrastructure"....!

  4. Actually, I don’t think the ‘definition’ of Green Belt which Chris Weetman has quoted is altogether unreasonable. It may perhaps be a rather sweeping generalisation, but no doubt was an honest attempt by the planning officer to summarise it succinctly for elected members in the context of a particular application.