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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Community planning in the devolved UK

Community planning is all about how public bodies and other partners work with local communities to design and deliver services that suitably reflect the needs and priorities or a local area. Effective community planning incorporates strong partnership working and a shared vision which has been created especially to fit a set of local circumstances.

Providing effective and efficient services, promoting community engagement and enterprise and engaging the third sector are all things that could now be considered part of “community planning”. It is founded on the idea that communities know best; they know what they need, they know how it can be delivered and how they will use services in the most effective way to get the most value from them. With an increase in political devolution we have seen different approaches to delivering community planning emerge in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some nations embraced it from a very early stage, others less so. However, it has become an increasingly popular model over recent years, with all four administrations now using some form of community planning model.

England

In England, the focus has largely been on housing and land use and the relationship between community plans (which consider services and public engagement) and local development plans (which focus more on the physical aspects of planning in the community, such as land use). Neighbourhood plans give communities the opportunity to develop a shared vision for and shape the development and growth of their local area. Neighbourhood plans are not a legal requirement, but a right which communities can evoke if they wish to. They are designed to fit alongside local authority produced “local plans” and provide an opportunity for communities to set out a long term vision for their area in terms of development, and “may encourage them to consider ways to improve their neighbourhood other than through the development and use of land.”

Scotland

The introduction of the 2015 Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act is a clear indication of the stance of the Scottish Government with regards to community planning. As well as statutory rights being strengthened with regards to consultation and community consultation, the legislation also places statutory requirements on public bodies with regards to supporting local community based service delivery, and actively engaging local people in decision making processes. As a result of the legislation 32 Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) now exist in Scotland and they are responsible for developing and delivering community plans. These can take two forms:

  • a larger plan, which takes account of the whole CPP area (Local Outcomes Improvement Plan)
  • a smaller plan, which focuses on a smaller geographic area which has been identified as being in need of improvement (locality plan)

There is no limit to the number of plans CPP’s can create in a year, but the views of local communities are particularly important in creating these as that is the way to best reflect local needs and priorities.

In Scotland a consultation is also currently underway to consider ways to align community and spatial planning more closely, as it was recognised that planning for services should also be mapped along with physical development.

Wales

In a Welsh context the use of community planning focuses on resource allocation and the direction of resource to where it is needed. Promoting community cohesion and well-being through community planning is also something which can be seen in both Wales and Scotland. Increasingly, plans have attempted to incorporate a “place-centred”, “service focused”, “partnership led” approach, with the emphasis on individual need. It is hoped that by bringing service providers and other partners back in touch with the people who use their services that their views can be taken on in future planning projects. As in all community planning projects, partnerships are key; however in Wales one of the biggest challenges has been forming these partnerships and getting buy-in from local businesses. A similar challenge has also been seen with national level bodies.

This challenge of engaging national bodies in community planning has also been seen in Scotland. National bodies are expected to engage with rural and urban CPP’s in ways which reflect individual community need, something they had not been used to doing previously. As a result, promoting flexibility and adaptability and encouraging participation from a range of stakeholders in order to support the creation and delivery of community plans has been high on the agenda across the UK.

Northern Ireland

The situation in Northern Ireland is, to a large extent, still evolving. Executives at Stormont, as well as planners and developers, see engaging local people as important but they are also trying to find a model which works best for a Northern Irish context. Potential options for integrating community based models have included adopting models from England or Scotland respectively; creating their own model which takes elements from a number of different models; or making attempts to align the Northern Irish model closer to that of the Republic of Ireland.

Currently the legislative basis for community planning in Northern Ireland is set out in the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014. The Act makes a statutory link between community plans and local land use development plans, and makes the link between community planning for a district and well-being more explicit.

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Engaging difficult to reach communities in community planning

The views of local communities are particularly important when creating community plans, as their fundamental principle is to reflect service and resource need more effectively in order to benefit communities. As a result community planners across the UK face the unilateral challenge of getting people to engage. Different groups within a community may have different capacity and ability to engage. ‘Hard to reach’ groups are particularly important to the consultation process as it is often they who make the most use of services or have the greatest need for specific service provision. People in this group may include young people, older people, ethnic minorities or other socially excluded groups, and small businesses. They are also sometimes referred to as ‘seldom heard’ groups.

Methods to improve communication and consultation with hard to reach groups vary, but some potential barriers and solutions to engagement include:

  • Jargon and technical language – Policy and planning documents can be very long, and very dense, with lots of planning specific technical jargon, create an easy access version so that everyone can be engaged in discussions and not feel intimidated by “high level” documents.
  • Digital illiteracy – Increasingly consultation documents, some forums and copies of the plans themselves are held online, and improving access to these would help to encourage more people to participate.
  • Awareness and accessibility – Promoting consultations or community planning events, and holding them at a variety of times and in a variety of settings to allow people from different groups to attend. In addition providing them in multiple languages, using language that is more accessible for young people, or in a larger type size may also help to encourage people to participate.
  • Showing impact – Create follow up documents so that people can see how their input has made a difference. Even if the plan won’t be implemented for a number of months, let people know how what they said influenced or changed the decisions that were made.

It is clear that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are at different stages in their community planning journey. However, they have all, in one way or another recognised the importance of engaging communities to identify needs and attempt to allocate resources accordingly. In many instances, these community agendas have not just been linked to spatial, or even service planning, but also to wider issues around inequality and well-being and how resources and planning across all areas can best be directed to tackle this. It may be that we see this reflected further in future legislation.


This blog reflects on a recent paper by Deborah Peel and Simon Pemberton “Exploring New Models of Community based Planning in the Devolved UK” a study funded by the Planning Exchange Foundation.

Idox Information Service members can access our research briefing on engaging communities in planning.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Is the sun setting on the UK’s onshore wind industry?

 

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In its 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative Party made a clear promise:

“We will halt the spread of onshore windfarms”

Soon after winning the election, the Conservative government followed through on this commitment, introducing three key changes concerning onshore wind in England and Wales:

  1. New planning guidance was issued stating that onshore wind farms must be sited in areas “identified as suitable for wind energy in a local or neighbourhood plan”, and that any objections from local communities to proposed developments must be “fully addressed”.
  2. Energy secretary Amber Rudd announced the phasing-out of renewables subsidies, with onshore wind subsidies ending a year earlier than planned, in April 2016.
  3. The government’s 2015 Energy Bill (England and Wales) included a measure to devolve powers to determine major onshore wind farm applications (with a capacity of more than 50 megawatts) to local authorities.

Onshore wind in context

Since the construction of the UK’s first commercial wind farm in 1991, onshore wind energy has grown to become the country’s largest source of renewable energy generation. With more than 8GW of operational capacity, onshore wind accounted for 11% of the country’s electricity last year, reaching a record 17% in December.

An Office for National Statistics survey reported that, in 2014, about 3,000 businesses were operating in the onshore wind sector, which employed 6,500 people across the UK – 3,000 in England, 2,500 in Scotland, and 500 each in Wales and Northern Ireland, generating £2.8bn.

Renewable UK, which represents the wind and marine energy sector, argues that onshore wind is an environmentally-friendly and cost effective form of energy:

“A modern 2.5MW (commercial scale) turbine, on a reasonable site, will generate 6.5 million units of electricity each year – enough to make 230 million cups of tea.”

In recent years, higher capacity turbines and improvements and reductions in installation, operation and maintenance costs have made onshore wind more economically attractive. The European Wind Energy Association claims that onshore wind is now the cheapest form of new power generation in Europe.

Responses to the policy changes

In its manifesto, the Conservative Party acknowledged that onshore wind makes a meaningful contribution to the country’s energy mix, but observed that onshore windfarms often fail to win public support, and are unable by themselves to provide the capacity that a stable energy system requires. The government has since underlined that there is no longer any need for subsidising onshore wind and that the £800m in subsidies added about £10.00 to an annual household energy bill.

An article in The Economist agreed that subsidies for renewables were too generous and pointed out that onshore wind is an unreliable energy source. This was echoed by former environment secretary Owen Paterson, who said:  “There is absolutely no place for subsidising wind – a failed medieval technology which during the coldest day of the year so far produced only 0.75 per cent of the electricity load.”

However, environmental campaigners, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Jonathon Porritt, argued that scrapping support for wind turbines, rather than phasing them out, would increase the cost of meeting carbon reduction targets, or increase the risk of missing them. This, in turn, they said would lead the UK to pursue more expensive decarbonisation options, resulting in additional costs to consumers.

Meanwhile, energy companies warned that the policy changes had made some renewable power projects “uninvestable”.  In October 2015, the Financial Times reported that one renewable energy company had scrapped nine onshore wind projects in England in the previous four months, halting investments of more than £250m. The company said it had instead switched its investments to projects in the Netherlands and Germany.

In Scotland, which has 61% of the UK’s onshore wind capacity, the Scottish Government has stressed that it continues to support onshore wind and other sources of renewable energy. In December 2015, Scottish chief planner John McNairney wrote to Scotland’s heads of planning explaining that the administration has not changed its stance on onshore wind farms or energy targets.

The planning changes

With regard to the planning aspects of the policy reforms, the Royal Town Planning Institute questioned the need to enable major wind farm projects to be decided locally, given that local planning authorities already have final consenting power for onshore wind farms under 50 megawatts, which make up the majority of applications.

In July 2015, Planning Resource reported that the policy was already having an impact. Kieran Tarpy, managing director at planning consultancy Entrust, said that within days of the new guidance being announced one council had refused a planning application based on the need for community backing. He predicted that the policy changes would have a “dramatic impact” on the number of proposals going into the system.

However, last month, Planning Resource reported that some local authorities, including councils in Hull, Cumbria and Devon, have drawn up draft policies to allocate areas as suitable for wind energy.

The UK government may still be committed to halting the spread of onshore wind farms, but it appears that rumours of the death of onshore wind have been exaggerated.

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.