Rethinking the Green Belt?

This week, the BBC reported that the number of houses approved in the Green Belt has increased by 400% in the last five years, from 2,258 homes in 2009-10 to 11,977 in 2014-15. That news, and the reaction to it, brings the issue of Green Belt development to the fore.

Current Government advice states that planning permission should only be approved in the Green Belt in “very special circumstances” where the benefit outweighs the harm. If the increase in houses approved is anything to go by, the worsening housing crisis and resulting pressure on local authorities to approve housing seems to be having an effect on this “very special circumstances” test.

The BBC’s revelation has caused predictable concern among the usual suspects. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) alleges that the Government is not living up to its rhetoric. Speaking to the BBC, Kevin Fitzgerald of the Hertfordshire CPRE said, “We are getting continual statements by government ministers, correspondence from government departments to various bodies like to us saying it is their determination to protect the Green Belt and the wider countryside. But… our planning authorities are coming out with these proposals for quite major development.”

Is a change of heart from the Government the cause of the increase? The Government has predictably passed responsibility to local authorities. Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis stated, “it is very much an issue for local authorities. They are the best placed people locally, democratically accountable locally, to decide where is the right location for any development.”  When Secretary of State, Eric Pickles blocked several housing proposals, disagreeing with planning inspectors that insufficient housing land supply was an adequate reason to build in the Green Belt.

Some council leaders have complained that this is disingenuous, and that five-year housing land supply requirements make them “frightened” not to allow developments. When councils feel this constrained, Government pleas that decisions should be taken locally seem to miss the crucial point that the Government makes the rules. It will be interesting to see whether Greg Clark is as firm as his predecessor in determining called-in appeals.

Ultimately the issue of development in the Green Belt is one of leadership. It is all too easy to praise the Green Belt as stopping urban sprawl and protecting attractive land for city dwellers and surburbanites. It will take more courage to take up the call of the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee to review the size and boundaries of our Green Belts, to evaluate what we need of them and whether they do that, in their current form.

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