Blog: 22 December 2015Green Belt – tackling the taboo

Mark Sitch

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Mark Sitch

Senior Partner

Birmingham office

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The Government have introduced a new consultation on proposed changes to national planning policy that would allow starter homes to be built on select areas of the Green Belt. The question is, is this a softening of the Government’s approach to development within Green Belt to date?

Put simply, the proposal is to change policy to support the regeneration of brownfield sites within the Green Belt by allowing them to be developed, providing this contributes to the delivery of starter homes (and subject to local consultation). The importance of the consultation is in that it recognises that there is a significant shortfall between the number of homes that we need to build to keep up with housing requirements and net additions to the housing stock. It is also further confirmation of the Government’s commitment to make best use of ‘all’ brownfield land - even within Green Belt- and a departure from the historic rhetoric of the Conservatives on Green Belt protection.

Before we get into the detail of the policy proposal and its implications, it is important to remind ourselves that Green Belt was originally put forward in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act – a time long before the present housing crisis and the overheating of  our cities and larger towns.

Since the introduction of Green Belt policy we have experienced substantial urbanisation, significant population growth and a shift in commuter patterns - changing our demands on land and constraining the economic growth of our cities and larger towns. But, despite these changes, one thing has remained constant – our desire to own our own home. If we want to keep this aspiration alive (the Government certainly wants to), we need to explore the few viable options to building on the scale required – resulting in a growing appetite to assess potential  areas of our Green Belt for development.

While Green Belt protection serves an important purpose, it is also worth noting that the Green Belt offers just one additional layer of protection over our green spaces – even if we allow a small fraction of the Green Belt to be developed, the majority of the countryside would still remain. Relaxing these regulations does not mean wholesale removal of the Green Belt, but what we can do is strategically target the lower quality areas of Green Belt land that exist, whilst still protecting our best countryside.

Allowing the industry to consider certain areas of Green Belt is a positive step, and one that should be welcomed and the recognition that housing development can be delivered, albeit on brownfield land, within the Green Belt, is a positive step forward. But of course, there are a number of considerations we should take into account if this is to be a successful policy that encourages appropriate and viable development – what is needed is a scale of development not considered in this current consultation.

So, how could we implement the Government’s proposed changes?

  1. Ensure the areas of Green Belt allocated and/or subject of a planning application for housing are well connected and have appropriate access to infrastructure

Housing needs to be well connected and can only be successful with effective infrastructure. The Government is proposing to give more flexibility and enable suitable redevelopment to come forward. This has to be right and as long as we consider connections and infrastructure, additional housing will be delivered on sites previously artificially held back because of a Green Belt designation.

  1. Ensure housing is of a high quality

There is no substitute for quality design. In or on the edge of our urban areas new developments should be designed to be in keeping with their surroundings, and building on the Green Belt must be no exception. The consultation proposes to amend the current policy to allow for suitable, sensitively designed redevelopment.  New homes can have a positive effect and delivery economic, social and environmental benefits.

  1. Ensure market housing is delivered alongside starter homes

We need to ensure there is a mix of housing provided, which would include market housing. Are we clear where starter homes sit?  The change in the definition of affordable housing to include homes for sale is in the new consultation on the proposed changes to the NPPF.  The redevelopment of brownfield sites will need market housing to assist in their delivery. The consultation refers to such development being allowed ‘providing this contributes to the delivery of starter homes’. In my view, this needs to be alongside market housing.

  1. Ensure there continues to be adequate protection for valuable green space in the Green Belt

While this proposed policy change will enable brownfield sites within the Green Belt to contribute to the delivery of housing, but this is not a carte blanche to development of all our Green Belt.

Tackling the taboo of Green Belt protection is an important step in addressing the housing crisis and one that has significant support from the industry. We must ensure we clearly set out the case for removing the present Green Belt protection and address the emotive response often put against such a change. We must take advantage of this opportunity – ensuring the benefits are recognised by as many people as possible.

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