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There's plenty of evidence that our green belts need review, says Philip Barnes of Barratt Homes - so what about a Royal Commission in 2015?

Philip BarnesFor those believing that growth of our cities is a sustainable way to address the housing crisis, it could be a frustrating six months ahead. Urban containment appears nailed on as we approach the election. Witness the new planning guidance, which some see as emphasising green belt ahead of housing need.

But perhaps it’s not that simple. Though the guidance is new, the policy isn’t; it simply reiterates paragraph 14 of NPPF. Indeed, since the guidance was issued ministers have stressed there is no change to national policy.

So what’s going on? 

Preparing for an election is most people’s guess. New housing is unpopular, so the guidance will help MPs in green belt constituencies to argue against development. For those who believe urban containment to be worthy of critical review this is a time for building up evidence ready for conversations with a new government. There is already good evidence out there. 

In terms of the Metropolitan Green Belt, Quod Planning did some great work highlighting the 20,000 hectares of open land in the green belt that is within 10 minutes’ walk of a rail or Tube station. That could accommodate a million homes. 

Similarly, the London School of Economics identified 32,500 ha of land inside the M25 with a capacity for 1.6 million homes. Yet the Greater London Authority has written to the local authorities beyond the green belt for assistance.

And in Manchester, Barratt commissioned research that showed the green belt is 45 per cent bigger than the conurbation. If the Manchester green belt was a tennis court, then land for 1,000 new family homes would measure five inches by five inches. 

"If it really is too politically toxic, what about a Royal Commission on green belt?"

At 1,000 new homes a year in the green belt it would take 900 years to build on half of it. 

Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2010 Manchester grew its population by three times the amount of Munich, but grew its urban area by five times less.

In Oxford we have a global opportunity to create a world-leading location where science meets academia and business. Instead, we seem to be planning the future of the city on the basis of it being a market town that must be constrained. It has a housing need for 28,000 homes but capacity for 8,000. None of its neighbours appears keen to release green belt to facilitate this required growth.

So maybe it’s head down for now in the hope that we can start an intelligent debate in the middle of 2015. 

If it really is too politically toxic, what about a Royal Commission on green belt?

Philip Barnes is group land and planning director for Barratt Developments Plc


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