Green Belt: a quiet Northern revolution?

On 21 June 2021, the Secretary of State granted planning permission for more than 2m sq ft of industrial and logistics floorspace in the North West. In the Green Belt. Yes, you read it correctly, in the Green Belt.

I acted for Harworth Group at a call-in inquiry considering a warehouse-led proposal on Green Belt land in Bolton. David Manley QC from Kings Chambers promoted the other scheme for Tritax Symmetry in Wigan. These proposals were two of four Green Belt logistics schemes (the others being in St Helens) under consideration by the Secretary of State. We await decisions on the others.

So why did the Secretary of State grant permission for these proposals?

It was a straightforward application of green policy that has remained unchanged for decades and can be illustrated by quoting just one paragraph from the Harworth Group decision:

“Overall, the Secretary of State considers that the economic and other benefits of the proposal are collectively sufficient to outweigh the harm to the Green Belt and to the landscape such that very special circumstances exist to justify permitting the development.”

This simple exposition of the Green Belt ‘balance’ belies not only the incredibly hard work done by the inquiry team but reveals a few underlying themes. Here are my thoughts.

Green Belt is not sacrosanct

Despite recent pronouncements from politicians claiming that Green Belt will not be built on, it is in fact necessary if the country’s development needs are to be met. The Bolton and Wigan decisions were extremely significant in their own right but registered barely a ripple in the national press, which is surprising given that planning issues – and Green Belt above all else – are running very hot in the wake of the Chesham and Amersham byelection. This is to be contrasted with the coverage garnered by five ‘luxury mansions’ built in the wrong place in the Bolton Green Belt, which took up column inches in the Sun, the Star and the Daily Mail. Could it be that jobs are less controversial than homes?

It’s the benefits stupid

Our evidence and closing submissions referenced the Northern Powerhouse, Levelling Up, Build Back Better and the need for supply chain resilience in a post-Brexit world. These sound like political slogans, which they are, but they can and should mean something. Bolton is one of the 20% most deprived boroughs in the country. Unemployment rates are high. Public health and the local economy were hit particularly badly by the pandemic. Even before Covid-19, the health outcomes for large swathes of Boltonians were much worse than the national picture. These challenges must be viewed in the context of the need for over 5m sq m industrial and warehousing floorspace to 2037 in the Greater Manchester area. That’s 222,100 sq m or 31 Bolton Wanderers football pitches every single year. It was obvious from the Inspectors’ Report and the decision letter that these socio-economic benefits decisively tipped the balance in favour of the scheme.

Go big or go home

Counter-intuitively, it seems that proposals in the Green Belt are more likely to succeed if they are larger in scale. Although the harms are inevitably greater, the benefits often seem to carry disproportionately greater weight. Both the Harworth Group and Tritax schemes are evidence of this general point, probably.

The failure of strategic planning in Greater Manchester

As Bruce Lee said: “If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done”. I have little doubt that Bruce had strategic planning in mind when he said this.

The Harworth Group site was part of a much larger draft industrial allocation in the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework and had been for a number of years. As people may know, Stockport Council took its GMSF ball home at the end of last year and the Places for Everyone plan is starting slowly to move forward. Importantly, the Secretary of State gave no weight to this draft allocation – but did to the evidence base. The glacial pace of the GMSF would be the topic for another article (or series of articles) but there’s a definite sense amongst some councils and a heightened level of frustration amongst site promoters that development needs will remain unmet unless applications are made. In light of the Bolton and Wigan permissions, I suspect that other applicants in the North West will be emboldened to make applications rather than await the outcome of the plan-making process.

A policy vacuum

There is a distinct lack of national policy addressing the pressing need for logistics floorspace. At a national level, the NPPF at Paragraph 82 notes a need to meet the needs of storage and distribution, but in essence that is all. The Planning Policy Guidance does not take matters much further. Last year’s Planning White Paper was principally about housing, as was Robert Jenrick’s speech to the Local Government Association on 6 July. If we are to get anywhere near balancing jobs with homes, this policy gap must be filled.

The Harworth Group decision can be found here and the Tritax Symmetry letter here.

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