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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The changing landscape of planning: views from the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference 2015

The Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal (SPEL) held its annual conference in Edinburgh on 17th September. This year’s theme was “the changing landscape of planning”.

Rebecca Jackson, 2015

Photo: Rebecca Jackson

The death of strategic planning?

The keynote speech of this year’s conference was delivered by Professor Greg Lloyd, Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning, Ulster University. He outlined a concept of ‘landscapes of planning’, taking delegates on a whistle-stop tour of what he viewed as the four landscapes of modern planning: post WWII; post 1979; post 1997; and post 2011.

This reflected a journey from post-war social democratic principles, to immature new liberalism under Thatcher, to a third way synthesis under Blairite Labour and what he described as ‘pure unadulterated Neoliberalism’ post-recession.

Professor Lloyd argued that we will soon be transitioning into a fifth landscape which may see the ‘de-coupling of capitalism and democracy’; as the state becomes smaller and more interested in pursuing private rather than public interest (he specifically referenced books by Mason, 2015 and Streck, 2014).

He emphasised the need for planners to be aware of these transitions and for the profession to attempt to remove itself from the current path dependent, money driven culture. Otherwise it would result, he argued, in “reactionary, short term planning; the death of strategic planning and the rise of the know nothing school.”

Unconventional gas … a need to build public trust

The second topic of the morning was a discussion about planning’s future relationship with energy, particularly unconventional gas. Public controversy in the UK over fracking has received considerable news coverage in the last few months. The Scottish Government also announced in January a moratorium on granting planning consents for unconventional oil and gas developments, including fracking, while further research and a public consultation are carried out.

Tom Pickering from INEOS Upstream presented on INEOS specific practices, while Sandy Telfer, DLA Piper Scotland, discussed the impact of increased regulation on the contamination of water supply at shale drilling sites in Pennsylvania.

The key thing to come out of these presentations, and the questions from the floor which followed, was the emphasis on education and making information accessible to members of the public to gain their trust on the subject of fracking and horizontal drilling.

Rebecca Jackson, 2015

Photo: Rebecca Jackson

Linking community and spatial planning …”it’s not rocket science”

Following a quick coffee break the next session was delivered by Nick Wright, Principal, Nick Wright Planning and Karl Doroszenko, development planning and regeneration manager at East Ayrshire Council. They spoke on community planning and spatial planning in Scotland and how it should, and can, work effectively to deliver better services for communities.

Nick Wright gave an update on research by the RTPI on the benefit of linking spatial and community planning. This was followed by Karl Doroszenko who spoke about the experience of East Ayrshire Council and the creation of their community planning partnership.

The presentations provided a useful insight for delegates, particularly planners, as to how they could integrate shared planning into their practices. Karl spoke at length about cooperation and the benefit this had on delivering services for the local community in East Ayrshire.

Just before lunch there was the first round up of Planning Case Law delivered by Maurice O’Carroll, Advocate at Terra Firma Chambers.

Priorities and game changers in the next parliament … “planners have an important role to play”

The afternoon session began with Stefano Smith, Vice Convenor of RTPI Scotland, looking at priorities and game changers in the next Parliament. He spoke of the need for planners to discuss and engage with the 2016 election in Scotland. It is planners themselves who need to take responsibility for promoting the importance of planners and planning in order to generate public discussion about the planning system.

He identified 7 key themes which the RTPI believe should shape how planning is approached in the next parliament. He emphasised the necessity for planning to realise its full potential and to work towards key priorities to deliver planning effectively.

Rebecca Jackson, 2015. Stefano Smith addresses the conference.

Photo: Rebecca Jackson, 2015. Stefano Smith addresses the conference.

“We need radical change, centred on land use and management”

Following Stefano Smith, three speakers considered the priority actions of land use and delivering land for new homes in Scotland. Blair Melville of Turley began by outlining the housing situation in Scotland. He commented that planners are using the economy as an excuse not to plan effectively for housing but that this should not be the way forward for planning in Scotland.

Robin Holder, MD of HolderPlanning then reflected on whether planning was helping or hindering the delivery of housing. Housing land supply has been an eternal argument for planners, which has led to a large shortfall in housing supply. He suggested a new approach where there is a move away from regional Strategic Development Plans and Main Issues Reports, which he saw as a drag on the planning process, in favour of local community-based development plans which could be consulted on instead.

Professor David Adams rounded off the discussion and put it to delegates that they should be taking a more radical approach to land use in order to reform planning. He commented that planners need to rediscover the fundamental link between use of land and planning. He looked specifically at the Land Reform Review Group and their suggestions on Compulsory Sale Orders and the creation of a new Housing Land Corporation for Scotland in the proposals being considered currently in the 2015 Land Reform Bill.

Rebecca Jackson, 2015. Speakers take questions from the floor

Rebecca Jackson, 2015. Speakers take questions from the floor

Continuous improvement in the planning system

The final session of the afternoon was given by David Leslie, Acting Head of Planning and Building Standards at Edinburgh City Council who gave his reflections on continuous improvement in the planning system in Scotland and how joint working and innovation in future projects can drive planning forward. He commented that both transformational and cultural improvement is needed to promote effective planning.

Finally there was a second roundup of planning case law delivered by Alasdair Sutherland, an advocate at Terra Firma Chambers.

What is the future of planning in Scotland?

A key message which emerged regularly throughout the day was the question of consultation: how do planners strike the balance between consulting fully with a community and creating a quick planning process which sees decisions reached quickly and clearly.

Another was the question of land in Scotland and how we can maximise its use to help achieve the outcomes set out in the national planning framework.

A third key theme was how local communities can be integrated into the planning system more – are community planning partnerships the way forward or is there another way?

And finally how do we review and evaluate planning – should central government be taking a greater role in ensuring that outcomes are met and concerns of the public are taken into account?

The day provided an opportunity for individuals involved in the planning sector to get together to share ideas and understanding about how planning in Scotland should work and the changing nature and demands of planning. The topics covered drew together a diverse range of themes, and it was good to see delegates and speakers interacting and debating. As the planning process in Scotland continues to adapt to meet new challenges in the future, it’s clear that Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal will remain at the forefront of commentary and insight.


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Read our other recent articles on planning:

Loosening the belt: the debate over building on green belt land

By James Carson

“The green belt has been exalted as sacrosanct in a way in which almost no other policy area has been indulged, and any attempts to have a serious conversation about its development have been swiftly stifled with the same kind of force as would usually be reserved for suggestions to entirely dismantle the NHS.”

So said Andrew Carter, the Acting Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, writing on the Conservative Home website earlier this month. It’s true that green belts have long been regarded as untouchable. But there are signs that the bulletproof shield protecting them could be breaking down.

In September, the Wolfson Economics Prize went to regeneration consultancy Urbed for its proposal to create a city of 400,000 people by doubling the size of an existing town and building on the surrounding green belt. The following month, Rowan Moore, The Observer’s architecture critic, considered the arguments for and against green belts and concluded:

“…it is no longer good enough to insist that green belts must, at all costs, never change.”

Meanwhile, defenders of green belts have been voicing their concerns. “A weakening of protection for green belts would lead to urban sprawl over precious countryside and farmland,” said the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), launching its campaign for a stronger commitment from government to review the latest threats to the green belt. And after the Wolfson prize winner was announced, architect Richard Rogers spoke out against Urbed’s proposal to take a bite out of the green belt, calling it “a ridiculous concept.”

The idea of curbing urbanisation is not new. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a three-mile wide belt around London was proposed in order to stop the spread of the plague. More recently, the garden city movement’s ideas about urban and rural areas, led to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which allowed local authorities to include green belts in their town plans.

Today, there are 14 green belts in England, 10 in Scotland, 30 in Northern Ireland and one in Wales. They exist as buffers between towns and countryside, and successive governments have ensured that they are maintained. The UK government’s latest National Planning Policy Framework sets out the green belt’s five purposes:

  • 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.

Historically, green belts have been regarded as one of Britain’s great planning successes. But there has been growing criticism of the costs of the green belt, typified by Rowan Moore’s observation:

“It stops cities expanding, which had previously done so for centuries. It contributes to the scarcity and cost of decent homes in large parts of the country. It encourages bizarre and wasteful patterns of commuting. It often fails in its original aim of providing accessible recreational space for city dwellers. It is enforced with a rigidity that makes little sense, except as a sign of mistrust.”

Britain’s housing crisis has amplified calls for the green belt to be breached.  Government projections suggest that the UK needs six million new homes in the next 30 years. Proponents of building on green land contend that existing urban and brownfield areas alone cannot cater for the housing demand, an argument underlined by Urbed in its submission to the Wolfson competition.

Centre for Cities has claimed that building on 5.2% of green belt land within and around Britain’s least affordable cities would deliver 1.4 million new homes.

Their opponents disagree. This month, the CPRE reported that a minimum of 976,000 new homes could be built on identified brownfield sites in England, and that the supply of these sites is steadily increasing. The organisation has also suggested that housebuilders are “sitting on huge areas of land with planning permission which could provide over 280,000 new homes.”

With a general election on the horizon, the main political parties have been drawing up their battle lines. The Labour Party is showing signs of greater flexibility on the green belt issue. In October, Sir Michael Lyons published the final report of his independent review of housing for the Labour Party. One of his recommendations included allowing more homes to be built on parts of the protected green belt if the land has little “environmental or amenity value”. In response, the Conservative Party has reiterated its commitment to protecting the green belt.

Perhaps most interestingly, it’s at the local level that changing policies on green belts can be most clearly seen. Councils in England are responding to the housing crisis by using localism powers granted to them by the coalition government to de-designate or swap greenbelt land in the context of making a local plan. Figures published in August by Glenigan planning and construction consultants revealed that 5,600 new homes were approved to be built on green belt land last year, a 148% increase on the 2,260 green belt homes in 2009/10.

The debate now seems to be moving towards a recognition that some infringement of green belt land is inevitable, which is perhaps why a recent commentary on the subject by an academic from the London School of Economics was not titled, “Why should we build on the green belt?” Instead, it was headlined: “Where should we build on the green belt?”.


Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on planning. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Delivering change: building homes where we need them

Utopias that work: how to create tomorrow’s garden city

Removing obstacles to brownfield development: how government can work with communities to facilitate the re-use of previously developed land (Foresight paper no 2)

Uxcester garden city (second stage submission for the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014)

Greenbelt under development: special report

Green belts: a local way forward for the twenty first century

N.B. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.