Tuesday, 19 December 2017

How might Green Belt policy be changed?

What is to be done about the Green Belt? Most planners, I suspect, have recognised for a while that housing need has become an irresistible force and that hitherto immovable Green Belt boundaries on the edge of most major cities need to start moving. That though has not been and is still not likely to be a feature of many local or national election campaigns because, according to this Ipsos Mori poll from 2015, even though 70% of the public claim to know little or nothing about it, 65% of people know that it should not be built on.
There are though some faint signs that public opinion might be shifting. Another Ipsos Mori poll for campaign group Housing The Powerhouse found net support for Green Belt release across Greater Manchester where this would result in investment for infrastructure and services. Further, in the build-up to the November 2017 Budget a number of newspapers trailed the possibility of Green Belt reform and hinted that the Chancellor was prepared to more bullish than the more cautious Prime Minister. In the end the nettle was not grasped, but the episode could be a sign that somebody at Conservative Party HQ has their political calculator out. At some point the gap between house price and wage growth, minus support from the younger voters, multiplied by a softening of public attitudes towards Green Belt might equal reform.
Something needs to be done about the Green Belt then, but what? When reform does come what form might it take? I think that there could be four kinds.
The bold option.
Allow me to tantalisingly place on the table, but take off immediately, any prospect of bold reform. This could be a complete re-imagining of the role of Green Belt linked to a parallel plan for the growth of our cities over a, say fifty, year period. A multi-generational boundary change that would identify both high quality green space (to be brought under public control if not already) and developable areas (from which value could be captured over the very long term to fund intra and inter-city transport). That, however, is not going to happen. Even a ‘Royal Commission on the future Green Belt’, which would make the Planning Minister of the day sound bold and visionary, but would, in effect, kick the nettle into the long grass (so to speak), is not going to happen. Forget that I mentioned it.
The path of least resistance option.
It will not be a single blow from a planner’s axe that does for current Green Belt policy, but rather the thousandth cut from a tinkering civil servant’s scissors and the smart money should be on the first incision being made to land around railways stations. This concept was given prominence by the ASI in 2015 and was included in some of this year’s pre-Budget commentary. It could be relatively simple to implement. The Housing White Paper proposes that LPAs amend Green Belt boundaries only when they can demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options. Once this threshold has been reached then land around railway stations could be introduced as the first port of call. It is, superficially at least, an attractive policy that could appeal to both planners and politicians and soften objections from the CPRE / ‘Save the Green Belt’ lobby by, on the face of it, being a ’sustainable’ option that supports infrastructure investment.
The technocratic option.
Another ‘could happen’ option, albeit very much less likely, is a technocratic one that the technocrats would like, but that would open the gates of tabloid hell for any Planning Minister. At the stroke of a pen, the Secretary of State could level the playing field upon which housing need and the Green Belt are competing. At present the absence of a five year supply of deliverable housing land (5YHLS) does not, of itself, represent the special circumstances required for a LPA to support a planning application for new homes in the Green Belt. What if it did though? What if Green Belt was a ‘policy for the supply of housing’ that was rendered out of date if a LPA could not demonstrate a 5YHLS? What an incentive to maintain a 5YHLS that would be…
Similarly, meeting housing need does not of itself provide an LPA with the exceptional circumstances to amend Green Belt boundaries through the local plan process. It could though, and it would take about fifteen minutes for somebody at DCLG to include those revisions in the next draft of the NPPF (including the removal of Green Belt as a ‘footnote 9’ designation). That fifteen minutes would, however, generate about two weeks’ worth of headlines and an electoral cycles worth of opposition ammunition. “Greedy Builders cash in on Green Belt free-for-all!”. Or similar. It would not be a free-for-all, of course, because the Green Belt would only be released through the development control process if there was not a 5YHLS in place and if the proposal accorded with the rest of the NPPF when taken together. The decision-making balance would be tilted towards (the greedy builders would say) equilibrium, but, let us face it fellow technocrats, that is not going to happen to either.
The politically astute (if I do say so myself) option.
So, with all of that being said, how might it be possible to achieve planning reform that is both politically palatable and technically sound. Well, dear readers, like the Centrist Dad that I am I would like to propose a middle way.
There are, as regular readers will know, five purposes to the Green Belt and now might be the time, if not to reimagine them, but to at least think about the whys and wherefores. The five are:
  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
Despite what the CPRE might have us believe, therefore, the Green Belt is not ‘to provide fresh air and open spaces for 30 million people’. Nor are they ‘places to exercise, take part in hobbies, relax and appreciate nature’. It is almost their purpose though because the NPPF states that ‘once Green Belts have been defined, LPAs should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt, such as looking for opportunities to provide access; to provide opportunities for outdoor sport and recreation; to retain and enhance landscapes, visual amenity and biodiversity; or to improve damaged and derelict land.’ Given the other pressures on LPA time and resource I wonder how much positive planning goes into this activity?
At the minute then the Green Belt is actually a bit like the first Arctic Monkies album. Whatever people say it is, that’s what it’s not. So rather than having to keep arguing about what it is not why not just agree with what it is? Visual and recreational amenity are legitimate factors to be taken into account in the planning of good places, and in the public’s mind what the Green Belt is for already, so why not factor them into the housing crisis / Green Belt equation.
Introducing landscape and recreational amenity as a purpose of Green Belt is not a major step on from encouraging LPAs to ‘plan positively’, but it would resolve at a stroke the toing and froing that goes on in the process of preparing a local plan about whether they should be. This toing and froing builds only mistrust, confusion and resentment and, either directly or indirectly, elongates the entire planning process. The Green Belt is a minefield, but there might be a way here for all involved to navigate their way through with everything important to them intact.
Whilst on the face of it affording Green Belt more potential purposes might make it harder for individual parcels to be released, this approach could actually make it easier, as well speeding up the local plan process by constructing an evidence base upon which there was less scope for disagreement. 37% of London’s Green Belt, according to the ASI, is, for example, intensively farmed. Farmland with no landscape or recreational value would score proportionately better if new tests were introduced because, whilst they might be ranked, say, moderate/high under five tests, they could be ranked moderate/low under, say, seven tests by scoring nothing more in the new ones. Any parcels that do have landscape or recreational amenity value and that would score proportionately better in any new test might be covered by another restrictive designation anyway (and probably should not be being promoted).
For the CPRE / ‘Save the Green Belt’ lobby the places where people do exercise, take part in hobbies, relax and appreciate nature would find it more difficult to make it into draft local plans, but by the same token they would find it more difficult to object to sites where people are not exercising, taking part in hobbies, relaxing or appreciating nature because full assessments against those criteria would have been made.
For the LPAs (and PINS and the Secretary of State), if the CPRE / ‘Save the Green Belt’ lobby, as well as the landowner and development communities, are not objecting to draft local plans then it should be easier for those drafts to work their way towards adoption.
This middle way is not, therefore, a firm grasping of the nettle, but rather an attempt to delicately position two fingers on the stem and give it a little shake. It is a little bold, and a little bit technocratic and it could get those currently community through the Green Belt a little closer, literally, to where they need to be.

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