The pressures on green belt are as never before in Britain’s history.
The unprecedented growth in our population in recent years and changes in living trends has created a demand for housing and economic growth. The economic stagnation following the recession of 2008 has lead the government to drive house building as a means of economic stimulus.
Initial signals from the government with the introduction of the government’s new planning laws in March 2012 the NPPF (National Policy Planning Framework) together with statements from Eric Pickles and other ministers indicated that the green belt would continue with its existing levels of protection.
This was reinforced by the government’s decision to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS). These were the regional strategic plans which threatened the green belt in many cases. The reason given for abandonment of the RSS was that they did not work. View was they were imposed by unelected bodies and lacked cohesion and were cumbersome. The governments drive to free up planning by simplifying the system with the new condensed 50 page NPPF meant the RSS had had its day.
In theory this mean the green belt would be better protected.
However these early favourable indications may have been unfounded. Government rhetoric is now hardening on development and communities are concerned the undercurrent is that green belt protection is to be relaxed
The government wants to introduce new planning guidance that that will put pressure on local councils to release more countryside and Green Belt for development. Research from the CPRE (Campaign for Protection of Rural England) shows at least 500,000 new homes are being planned for greenfield sites. This could result in the loss of 150sq Km of irreplaceable countryside. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
In the past year alone the number of houses proposed in the green belt has doubled to 150,000
Destruction on this scale is totally unnecessary when there are enough suitable brownfield sites for around 1.5 million homes. And the volume of brownfield sites are increasing exponentially in the UK especially after the 2008 credit crunch and the retail revolution away from town centres.
Developers are also sitting on land with planning permission with space to build 280,000 but are not proceeding for speculative reasons in the hope prices increase in the future.
The Government has also admitted that the number of long-term empty houses is a scandal which if addressed, could provide homes for over 300,000 families.
Moreover strong protection for green belts helps the economy generally by promoting urban regeneration and keeping housing and business close to services and transport links.
Absolute priority therefore should be in these developments being built on brownfield sites. The problem however is great pressure is placed upon the local authorities and the government by lobbying developers who would always prefer to build on green belt due to the lower capital costs.
However our view would be that preservation of green belt should come before the profit margins of a individual developer.
There is also another threat to the green belt emerging. Under the proposed new planning amendments is a new concept termed the “affordability test”.
The government proposes a new test supposedly based on a simplistic economic view that releasing more land for new housing will bring down house prices via supply side economies. Also that by reducing the capital cost of development will result in the developer being able to market the houses for a lower price. This is an extremely crude and simplistic assumption and will generally create immense pressure to build on green belt where capital costs are low. There is also concern over lack of control and the opportunity for developers to push the boundaries moving further and further away from the principles of green belt legislation.
This general situation is concerning and the outcomes for our green landscape are very uncertain.
It goes without saying this situation is irreversible once the green belt is lost it can never be replaced. Even conversion of ex industrial areas to wildlife reserves are dependent on the surrounding green space and connecting green corridors and wildlife migration and roaming.
No one questions the need for new housing but as we can see above there is no need to destroy the nation’s green belt to do so.