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18/02/2016

Legal landscape: Sorry, but we may need to build on the green belt

We all understand and prize the green belt, but the reality is that we may have to build on some of it, says Jay Das - so let's do it sensibly and sensitively

The protection of the green belt has been a national pastime for more than 70 years, but the principles are now under attack. Many will remember the appearance by Nick Boles on Newsnight that sent shivers through the Establishment when he spoke of a “moral right to own a house and garden”.

The realities are that virgin land is easier and more profitable to develop, and homes surrounded by some greenery appeal to most of the population. A more attractive development that appeals to the masses will invariably be built earlier than other more complicated “brownfield” sites.

This was one of the main reasons for the success of garden cities and why new proposals for garden cities have resulted in much interest and support generally. The protection of the green belt has often been described as nimbyism because it is invariably those who already have the benefit of living in such areas who are trying to protect their views and vistas from encroachment by new development.

Despite concerted efforts by governments over the past decade it appears that the increase in numbers of planning permissions granted by councils has not resulted in the consequential increase in housing delivery everyone had hoped for. The Guardian recently reported that the nine biggest house builders are sitting on enough land to build 615,152 homes and that many local councils are now promoting taxing planning consents as a “stick” to be used to deliver more housing.

The reality is that in a free market economy a stick is unlikely to achieve the desired results. Radical proposals are necessary. A Garden Of One’s Own, a report prepared by the Adam Smith Institute, promotes greater development on the green belt.

“There are nearly 20,000 hectares of accessible green belt within 10 minutes of an existing station. At an increased density of 50 units per hectare this would free up enough land to meet all London housing demand until 2030”

The report suggests that there are nearly 20,000 hectares of accessible green belt within 10 minutes of an existing station, which at an increased density of 50 units per hectare would free up enough land to meet all housing demand in and around London until 2030. The institute maintains that the protection of the green belt is unsustainable.

The Housing and Planning Bill, together with the changes proposed to the National Planning Policy Framework (which would allow greater infilling on green belt land), should present fair opportunity for increased housing development which, combined with the relief from Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) for Starter Homes, should present the “carrot” the industry needs to develop housing.

The critical issues are those relating to quality and protection against natural disasters such as flooding. Provided that the safeguards usually required in the form of Environment Statements (which should consider both the individual and cumulative impact on the environment of developments – for example, increase in noise or pollution or flooding – and provide solutions for any concerns arising) and appropriate design and protective measures such as sustainable and urban drainage strategies are not compromised, one would think a better solution to the housing shortage would be delivered sooner rather than later.

It has long been accepted that development will occur on green spaces and the purpose of the local plan process was to deal with the creation of new towns and cities and urban extensions in such green spaces. The development plan process is well suited to ensure that identified harms are addressed in so far as they can be dealt with given that the development of housing is such a pressing concern for the country. 

Places such as Coventry (which was recently allocating 10 per cent of the green belt) and Knowsley Council and Merseyside (those who have put forward nine green belt sites) seem to be leading the way in providing much-needed homes. 

Jay Das is head of planning at Wedlake Bell 

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