The Green Belt: a never-ending story?

Nothing quite brings out the daggers in the same way as building on the Green Belt. On a national level, there is an acceptance that the country needs to build new homes if we are to avoid a serious housing shortage in the future; locally it can be an entirely different story, especially when it falls within that special two-word area. Earlier this year, councillors in Knowsley approved its Local Plan, which included the release of Green Belt land for development. But a subsequent application for 200 homes brought forward has been withdrawn after it came under heavy criticism from local residents and ward members, who are opposed to building on the site in principle, and senior councillors, who did not like the plans that had been brought forward.

The controversial nature of building on the Green Belt is unlikely to go away, and there will always be those who are staunchly against any type of development, no matter how great the need. But there is near enough always room for negotiation with local residents, ward members and senior councillors if they are provided with the right platform.  Councillor Mike Murphy, Knowsley Council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Economic Development, opposed the withdrawn plans, commenting that:

“We have made our position absolutely clear that we are only interested in high-quality developments which enhance our borough and bring real benefits to our residents and people who wish to live here.”

The window was clearly open early on for conversations to be had before an application was submitted, and this could have enabled some issues to be ironed out before the application process officially began. Many local councils encourage applicants to undertake pre-application engagement, but this shouldn’t just be seen as a tick-box exercise to notify nearby residents. Further engagement with senior council members at the pre-application stage can find out any concerns they may have, what they would like to see, and, crucially, open the lines of communication. Consultation with councillors isn’t always explicitly advised by officers, but its importance can’t be underestimated.

Developing on Green Belt land seems like a never-ending controversy, and this doesn’t necessarily stop even if the land has been released. Councillors, especially at a senior level, can be particularly attuned to the problems caused by the Green Belt, which, having originally been put in place in 1946, can sometimes be illogical road blocks to necessary development in the 21st century. Early engagement with these councillors that highlights the benefits of a particular scheme can help to persuade them of its merits and open the door for dialogue, something that would be an advantage to any application: especially one for a site currently, or formerly, in the Green Belt.

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Councillors standing up in front of hostile public meetings invariably and for fairly obvious reasons say one thing, while behind closed doors with officers say another. Planning is fundamentally a political not technical process and until the public can be convinced that new housing is beneficial and indeed required at all this is likely to remain the case. Improving the quality and design of new housing together with proper infrastructure provision at the right time might well assist but relying primarily on the market to deliver means there are very limited mechanisms to ensure it all joins up. Developing Green Belt land almost inevitably means increased car-borne traffic to almost everywhere households might need including jobs, schools and shops. There are losers when development takes place which is why some fight so hard to resist it.

By cynical planner