Almost one quarter of Lancashire is designated as Green Belt, the bulk in the South and West of the county, areas facing significant development pressures. Mindful of the National Planning Policy Framework’s requirement to consider the sustainability consequences of channelling development beyond the Green Belt, authorities are increasingly proposing release of Green Belt land in order to meet their housing targets.
However, the NPPF also requires them to compensate for the impact of Green Belt release by improving environmental quality and accessibility of remaining Green Belt land. An important step in the process will be ensuring that both areas released for development and areas retained as Green Belt ‘work harder’ in other ways.
At its best, the Green Belt provides a range of benefits: a wildlife haven, a carbon sink, a floodwater sponge and a valued recreational asset for local communities. However, it has enormous potential to work harder in delivering a range of ‘ecosystem services’. Around two-thirds of the Green Belt nationally is in agricultural use and its intensification is a key driver in the dramatic decline in biodiversity in the UK.
Local authorities have a leading role to play in encouraging more beneficial use of the Green Belt. Many authorities across Lancashire moved to declare Climate Emergencies in 2019, and the region has been hard hit in recent years by surface water flooding.
One of the key ways these authorities can act on those declarations is by putting ‘green infrastructure’ at the heart of their spatial plans and policies. Increasing tree cover might be the most prominent on the political agenda, but Green Belt can be used for hosting community-supported agriculture, providing wildflower-rich habitats for pollinators, and providing active travel routes along canals or disused railway lines. LUC has been working with councils to identify potential to enhance beneficial use of Green Belt through GI studies for Greater Manchester, Oxford City and Shropshire.
But who is responsible for delivering GI? Too often, GI is the first obligation to drop off the budget as a ‘nice to have’, rather than a piece of vital infrastructure. This calls for more ‘natural capital’ thinking from both planning departments and developers – an economic concept that mobilises organisations and investors to understand how nature underpins other ‘goods’. With its Natural Capital Investment Plan, Greater Manchester has done some really valuable thinking on how to mobilise resources in this area.
Due to the national drive to meet housing targets, some release of Green Belt land will be inevitable for many authorities. In these cases, developers will have a key role to play. Sustainable drainage systems are already a requirement to make many schemes acceptable. However the introduction of mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain, with the long-awaited Environment Bill, will mean developers have to think harder about the ecosystem services their masterplans deliver. This goes beyond simply avoiding protected habitats – it requires a ‘landscape-led’ approach to masterplanning, letting the green and blue corridors dictate plans rather than the building plots.
New developments on the urban fringe can also enhance the ‘beneficial use’ of the remaining Green Belt, by ensuring that movement corridors link seamlessly into surrounding public rights of way and ecological corridors. Urban planners might also consider ways to provide green ‘fingers’ of connectivity between urban centres and the countryside beyond, akin to Copenhagen’s famous Five Finger Plan. This all means a big shift away from ‘business as usual’, but a GI-led approach to place can go beyond mere compliance to deliver more distinctive places that respond powerfully to their context, as the latest Housing Design Audit by Place Alliance, a movement campaigning for place quality, has called for.
As authorities across the UK seek to grapple with housing targets, Green Belt land will undoubtedly have a role to play. GI will need to be put at the heart of expectations for remaining and new Green Belt development sites, just as vital infrastructure such as road connections has been in the past.
- Lucy Wallwork is a Manchester-based senior planner at LUC. Get in touch on 0161 537 5960
- EVENT | Lancashire Development Update | Thursday 13 February | Blackburn