Increasing amounts of green belt land are being released for housing and other development. Currently more than 275,000 homes are planned on former green belt land, according to new research from the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Research suggests that, of the national total of 274,792, fully 117,208 homes are planned in metropolitan green belt areas around London. The figure represents a 35% increase in the last year, and the CPRE notes that the south east and West Midlands are coming under the greatest pressure.
“Councils are increasingly eroding the Green Belt to meet unrealistic and unsustainable housing targets,” said Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at CPRE, speaking as the Green Belt Under Seige report was published. “The Government is proposing to encourage further development in the Green Belt. 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. To build the affordable homes young people and families need, the Government should empower councils to prioritise the use of brownfield sites. Brownfield land is a self-renewing resource that can provide at least 1 million new homes.”
The CPRE says Green Belt boundaries are being modified to facilitate more development, while loopholes are being exploited. Most notable of these is the use of an “exceptional circumstances” clause, which councils are using to release land for building.
They also argue that what is happening in practice is at odds with government rhetoric with ministers saying they are committed to protecting the Green Belt. Says the report: “The reality has been very different. Only last month the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Greg Clark decided that 1,500 new homes should be built on Green Belt between Gloucester and Cheltenham in one of the biggest developments on Green Belt for a decade.”
There is, says the pressure group, plenty of existing brownfield land that can accommodate development, such that the Green Belt can easily be left unspoiled.
LPA Perspective: The CPRE is right to point out a government that seems to be saying one thing, but doing another. But its premise, that Green Belt land is sacred and should not be built on, is flawed; indeed, the peddling of this outdated line may be the very reason why the government is using whatever subtle methods it can, to erode green belt land by the back door.
The green belt concept was established when Britain had factories belching smoke, and cars ran on leaded petrol. And, while arguments around it generally use pictures of beautiful rolling fields, the reality is often far less picturesque.
In a considered critique published in City AM newspaper, Joe Sarling from planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield usefully pointed out key issues that are key to any debate about the green belt. He notes that in the outer London boroughs, 28% of land is designated green belt, while there are other designations such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks that take care of the greenery that really needs protecting.
There’s a housing shortage, of course, and London’s growth means putting pressure on the surrounding south east as well as the capital’s boroughs; not enough homes, means prices keep rising, and that doughnut of pressure enlarges as workers are forced to commute further.
The panacea of brownfield sites is not exactly that, he argues. Much of it is expensive to bring back into use, it’s not always in great locations – and if we concentrated solely on using it to deliver housing, there’s only six year’s supply.
The other key point he raises is that local plans – which should clarify where development can take place – are, in large measure, not up to date. Only one third of local authorities have a current plan published, while in areas around London he says that figure is 15%. With what is, at a local level ,effectively a policy vacuum, how will developers react, except to see where they can push the system to obtain a green light?