The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has added its voice to the national debate about the future of England’s countryside with fresh research that challenges the Government’s commitment to the Green Belt (Green Belt under siege: 2016). CPRE notes that “Our green belt is invaluable in preventing urban sprawl and providing the countryside next door for 30 million people. We need stronger protection for the green belt, not just supportive words and empty promises.” The future of the Green Belt has assumed the position of a political ‘elephant in the room’ as government dithers over how to deliver land suitable for development, at the point of the most pressing need, without alienating voters. Meanwhile, planning authorities and developers improvise a range of responses to the pressure for growth, including releasing Green Belt for new development under ‘very special circumstances’ and mounting legal challenges through the local plans process. Neither approach solves the key question – what is the future of the Green Belt?
What is the Green Belt?
Green Belts between cities and rural areas have been around since the mid-20th century, enabled by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act which allowed the local authorities to include ‘green belts’ in their development plans. The purpose of the designation has not changed since, carried forward through national and local policy over almost 70 years to the current National Planning Policy Framework as:
- To check unrestricted sprawl of large built up areas;
- To prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
- To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
- To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
- To assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land (NPPF, Policy 80).
Although development harmful to the purposes of Green Belt should not be approved except in very special circumstances, some types of development are allowed. These include the provision of access, outdoor sport and recreation, retention and enhancement of landscapes, visual amenity and biodiversity, and improvements to damaged and derelict land.
Green Belt is therefore not a landscape protection designation. It serves the very specific purpose of maintaining openness in the countryside around cities which, paradoxically, are normally the areas and places where development could most readily be supplied by extension of existing nearby infrastructure.
Green Belt development
The Green Belt covered 13% of England’s land area in 2014/15, although the decrease in Green Belt land between 2013/14 and 2014/15 was 2,000 ha (around 0.1% loss), which is the largest annual decrease since recording began. The release of Green Belt land results from refinement of Green Belt boundaries by local authorities challenged to identify sufficient land to meet the future housing and other development needs reflected in their local plans. Alongside this, there has been a dramatic rise in full planning permissions for housing in the Green Belt, in particular to meet demand in the South East. Fuel for the case that Government is preparing to abandon its manifesto pledge to protect the Green Belt was added by the December 2015 Government Consultation (http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn00934.pdf) which proposes to amend national planning policy so that neighbourhood plans could allocate “appropriate small scale sites” in the Green Belt specifically for starter homes, with neighbourhood areas having the discretion to determine the scope of a small-scale site. The consultation also proposes to change policy to support the regeneration of previously developed brownfield sites in the Green Belt by allowing them to be developed in the same way as other brownfield land, providing this contributes to the delivery of starter homes, and subject to local consultation.
As councils struggle to find enough land to accommodate new housing and economic development, the Landscape Institute (LI) is calling for a radical rethink of the management of Green Belt land. Proposals by The LI’s president elect Merrick Denton-Thompson include a levy on developers which would compensate Green Belt development and the loss of Green Belt land, with funds raised allocated to improving accessibility and enhancing the value of nature conservation. The response from Paul Miner, the CPRE’s planning campaign manager, is unequivocal – Merrick Denton Thompson’s suggested levy “would set a dangerous precedent which would be used as an excuse for building on more and more of the Green Belt”.
Such divergent arguments on whether Green Belt land should be used to promote development where space is urgently for housing, or retained as inviolate, are inevitable in the absence of robust policy. The Landscape Institute which, with The Built Environment Trust, has recently hosted an exhibition to air the debate observes the whilst the aims of the Green Belt are admirable, the designation is no longer fit for purpose. Merrick Denton Thomas considers it “out of step with current thinking on planning, designing and managing land for green infrastructure and ecosystem services”.
Comprehensive review of Green Belt policy
There can be little argument that the current ‘crisis management’ approach adopted by councils under huge pressure to deliver development is neither sustainable nor cost effective. Neither intelligent place making, nor informed investment by the development sector, can be achieved whilst local authorities are having to make reactionary Green Belt boundary changes to accommodate development, against the threat of Government sanction if sufficient housing numbers are not delivered. Pending a comprehensive review of the role of Green Belt policy for the 21st Century, any release of Green Belt land should be controlled and monitored carefully, ensuring that the merits of each site are assessed against the purposes of the designation, and any land release should be informed by detailed assessment of landscape and visual sensitivity and capacity.
What might a ’new’ Green Belt policy include? A fresh approach could raise opportunities for multi-functional use of Green Belt land, as a response to climate change as well as population growth. It should acknowledge that not all urban edge land is degraded or farmed with little amenity or ecological value. New policy should embed a requirement to build green infrastructure links to open countryside beyond the Green Belt, and for targeted management plans to deliver joined up land uses within the Green Belt, in a similar manner to the way in which AONB Management Plans provide clarity and guidance on development opportunities within the designated areas. Green Belt Plans could include green parks and edible forest gardens to support nearby urban areas for future generations.
It is critical that a realistic way forward, and the question who pays and how a future Green Belt could be managed, is urgently resolved. Short term fixes are not aiding informed debate – what is needed is a robust policy framework that looks forward to strategic needs over future decades. Without that framework, there is high risk of significant loss in Green Belt land without any guarantee of joined up strategic thinking across council boundaries.