Is it time to start building on the Green Belt?

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The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”
William Blake, 1799

The forthcoming Housing White Paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government is expected to tackle the thorny issue of the Green Belt. Initially due for publication at the end of 2016, the paper has now been delayed twice, heightening speculation about its contents.

The Telegraph has suggested that councils are likely to be encouraged to make greater use of the controversial policy of ‘green belt swaps’. Green Belt swaps allow councils to remove protections on one part of green belt in return for creating a new area of protected land elsewhere.  This may enable councils to better meet demand for housing.  Current planning legislation for Green Belt swaps already exists, but often fails to work in practice. Proposals are often rejected at the planning stage due to the newly identified land failing to meet Green Belt definitions. The Times indicates that the White Paper may contain a more aggressive approach towards the use of the Green Belt for housing.

Potential benefits

There is no denying the need for more housing.  In general, experts agree that a minimum of 200,000 new homes will be needed each year in order to keep up with demand.

Recent government statistics on Green Belt in England in 2015/16 estimated that it covered around 13% of the land area of England. It has been argued that development on just 1% of reclassified Green Belt would allow for almost half a million new homes to be built. However, building upon the Green Belt provokes much passionate debate.

Proponents of green belt flexibility argue that:

Paul Cheshire, Professor Emeritus of Economic Geography, LSE, argues that many opponents of building on the Green Belt hold a romanticised image of the nature of the land, which is not truly representative of the majority of Green Belt land.

“Of course parts of the Green Belts are real environmental and amenity treasures, such as the beautiful bits of rolling Hertfordshire, the Chilterns or the North Downs. Or rather, the beautiful bits to which there is public access. Such areas really need to be preserved against development. But almost all Green Belt land is privately owned, so the only access is if there are viable public rights of way.”

He goes on to suggest selective building on the least attractive parts of Green Belts, which are close to cities where people want to live.

A similar sentiment is found in the recent LSE report ‘A 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt’. Dr Alan Mace, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Studies at LSE (one of the authors of the report) concludes that:

“People often look at the Green Belt and say, ‘who would want to lose this?’ but often they’re looking at land that is protected in other ways, such as Metropolitan Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and this would not change. Some parts of the Green Belt are neither aesthetically pleasing nor environmentally valuable and these are the areas that should be looked at for potential development.”

Potential limitations

However, Green Belt swaps are not without potential problems.  For example, Shelter has cautioned that Green Belt flexibility “could create a mini industry in speculative land trading in Green Belt areas, making cheap land release much harder as landowners hold out for high prices”.

There is also much opposition to building on the Green Belt among the general public and environmental groups. Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at CPRE, is concerned that the Green Belt is being chipped away, arguing that, among its benefits, the Green Belt:

“…continues to provide impetus for urban regeneration, and makes environmental and economic sense in protecting the breathing space around our towns and cities.”

Perhaps Rowan Moore, writing in the Guardian, neatly describes the desire of many to protect the Green Belt when he states “The fact that it is named in the singular, although there are many green belts, indicates its status as an idea, even an ideal, as well as a place. It is part of English, if not British, national identity, protected by the shade of William Blake”.

Future policy

The government has remained tight-lipped on the contents of the White Paper, but if they do choose to include Green Belt swaps as a key feature of the paper, they will face an uphill battle in tackling public perception and reassuring environmental and conservation groups.

Reconciling these differences of opinion will not be easy.  Ensuring that there is no overall loss in the total land area and overall quality of the Green Belt will no doubt be a key step towards addressing this.


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Is there any value in preserving our built heritage?

By Alan Gillies

Concerns that Edinburgh may lose its World Heritage Site (WHS) status hit the headlines in October, as a team from the UK committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, UNESCO’s official adviser on cultural World Heritage Sites, arrived in the Scottish capital for a visit.

Two controversial planning applications for luxury hotels in the city were the focus of attention – the conversion of the former Royal High School (at one time the planned home of the new Scottish Parliament); and the redevelopment of the 1970s St James shopping centre.

The hotel on the St James site, with its ‘spiralling ribbon’ design, was approved by the council’s planning committee in August against the recommendation of council planning officers. The Old Royal High School application is yet to be decided, but is reported to have attracted over 2000 objections via the council’s e-planning portal. Historic Environment Scotland, statutory consultee for planning applications, has also lodged its official objection to the Royal High School scheme.

Although there is uncertainty over whether Edinburgh’s World Heritage status is genuinely under threat, the controversy has highlighted an important issue for planners and city policy makers everywhere. What is the value of conserving the built heritage of a place?

The benefits of World Heritage Site status

In terms of the World Heritage status itself, there are doubts over its benefits for sites like Edinburgh that are already well-known and established tourist destinations. According to Aylin Orbasli, Oxford Brookes University, “This is partly because the heritage tourism map of the UK is already drawn. Bath, Edinburgh, York and Oxford are all popular tourist attractions regardless of whether they are World Heritage Sites or not (Bath and Edinburgh are, York and Oxford are not).

UNESCO itself acknowledges that less well-known UK sites “potentially gain more” than those famous prior to UNESCO designation. As an example of the benefits for smaller sites, it highlights the Cornish Mining WHS, whose annual income has increased by 100% since gaining World Heritage status.

Even for more established sites, UNESCO argues that money invested in conservation by authorities in connection with World Heritage status encourages private sector investment. Using the Edinburgh World Heritage Site as an example, it reports that £414,246 in public grants for building conservation leveraged in additional funding from private sources of over £1.9 million in 2011-12. The most recent figures  for 2013-14 from Edinburgh World Heritage still show that every £1 of public spending leveraged in about £5 from other sources, albeit on a lower level of spend – just under £180,000 in public grants resulting in a total spend of £971,563 on conservation.

Are there drawbacks to WHS status?

A 2010 Oxford Brooked University study of Bath World Heritage Site commented on the planning and development pressures created by the status, including as an example the city’s controversial redevelopment of another 1970s shopping centre (Southgate).

The study found that the city’s WHS status “places additional responsibilities on the local council that are beyond its normal duties”, incurring costs that have to be met by the council itself. It concluded that “Bath does not gain any discernible additional economic benefit from being a WHS”. However the report does suggest that the status had enabled better preservation, stricter development control, attention to detail and investment in the public realm that may not otherwise have been as rigorous.

Wider benefits of the built heritage

Studies of the value of the built heritage more generally have been more consistently positive.

English Heritage’s most recent estimate is that built heritage tourism contributed £5.1bn in the UK in 2011, and that, after including indirect and induced effects, the total economic impacts of built heritage tourism included 393,000 jobs and £14.0bn of economic output.

From a business location perspective, the popularity of historic areas has been highlighted by research for the Heritage Lottery Fund, particularly for those in “the most highly productive parts of the economy” – professional services and the creative and cultural sector. It also found that the ‘heritage premium’ associated with the occupation of these listed buildings (the extra gross value added (GVA) they generate over and above the amount generated by businesses in non-listed buildings) is £13,000 per business per year.

Social and community benefits

There are also non-financial benefits. A study by Newcastle University in 2009 found “the first robust evidence” that living in more historic built environments is linked to a stronger sense of place, and that interest in historic built environments is also linked with higher levels of social capital.

The value people place on historic environments has been further shown in a study by researchers at the LSE, which found that house prices in conservation areas averaged around nine per cent higher than other areas. From a planning perspective, this study was also interesting in that it suggested that conservation areas were actually a popular planning policy both among planners and among the public. Planning officers appreciated the heightened ability to push for high quality new build in designated areas. And, surprisingly, home owners in the conservation areas who had applied for permission were more likely to have positive attitudes toward planning controls than those who had not applied. Perhaps this indicates that the perception of how restrictive planning controls are in conservation areas is not borne out in practice?

Heritage and city development

Of course the danger to be avoided is the temptation to regard historic areas as something to be ‘pickled in aspic’. Cities are living, changing places and the aim of designations such as World Heritage Site and conservation area is not to prevent development.

In fact the main objectors to the two planning cases in question in Edinburgh are not against the building of the hotels as such, but are based on certain specific design grounds. In the St James case, objections were over choice of materials and the effect of a height increase on the skyline; and in the case of the Royal High School, Historic Environment Scotland has objected over the scale of the proposed hotel, which would “dominate and overwhelm” the existing building.

Whatever the outcome of the current planning cases in Edinburgh, and the questions over the city’s World Heritage status, the available evidence does indicate that the built heritage provides significant benefits for cities. The challenge for planners is to find the right balance between conserving the historic nature of such sites but at the same time allowing them to continue to develop to meet the needs of current and future generations. As it says in the Scottish Government’s historic environment strategy, the historic environment should be “cared for and protected, enjoyed and enhanced.”


 

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Further reading:

Can cities exploit, conserve & promote their historic environment?

Values and benefits of heritage

Our place in time: the historic environment strategy for Scotland

The economic impact of the UK heritage tourism economy

Heritage works: the use of historic buildings in regeneration – a toolkit of good practice

The economics of uniqueness: investing in historic city cores and cultural heritage assets for sustainable development

The costs and benefits of World Heritage Site status in the UK

The latest in Scottish Planning & Environmental Law

April issue of SPEL Journal (Scottish Planning & Environmental Law) out now

by Laura Hughes

The Knowledge Exchange publishes a bi-monthly journal covering all aspects of planning and environmental law in Scotland. SPEL Journal (Scottish Planning & Environmental Law) launched over 30 years ago and is one of the leading information sources on land use planning and environmental legislation across the country. Continue reading