Boosting housing supply sits firmly at the top of the Government’s agenda in 2016. Earlier this year NLP’s Joe Sarling wrote about the Government’s pledges, and the “tangled web” of housing-related policies which may lead to each inadvertently impacting the other. One of the main thrusts of these housing policies aims to deliver new homes on brownfield land; however there is only a finite supply of brownfield land.There is however one other area that is central to this debate.Ask any member of the public if they have heard of the Green Belt and they will likely say yes. Ask them if they know what it is, and you might receive a varied response. Chances are however, they will tell you it is green’, that it is open countryside, and that it must be protected from development at all costs.
Not all Green Belt is ‘green’; not all of it is countryside; and the definition of Green Belt in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) does not refer to either of these as characteristics. However the NPPF provides rigorous protection for the Green Belt. Worryingly, my experience has been that if one asks many decision- takers, their concept of the Green Belt is closer to the former than to the NPPF. But the Green Belt isn't a new concept, it isn't a buzz word thought up by a government think tank. The Metropolitan Green Belt around London was first proposed by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee in 1935, over 80 years ago. Many Green Belts around the country have only been subject to infrequent, piecemeal or partial reviews since that time.My issue with the Green Belt is that it is not being used in the way it is intended. If the Green Belt was a new concept introduced now, boundaries would be drawn in a very different fashion. We are in the midst of a “housing crisis", and many areas surrounded by Green Belt are under pressure to deliver new homes. However, a number of political leaders in these areas are loathe to release Green Belt land, protecting it at all costs to appease constituents who include the people trying to purchase their first home, or help their children or grandchildren onto the housing ladder. My recent blog on Decision Time in the Thames Valley explores the pressures on these authorities.The November Guardian article on Green Belt Myths by Colin Wiles struck a chord with me. As Colin points out, 13% of England’s land mass is in the Green Belt – much of this in the south east.I would like to see authorities take a more responsible, pragmatic approach to Green Belt boundaries. We are told Green Belt assessments are completed on a 'policy off' basis, so why do they so frequently only propose marginal releases of land? Strategic Green Belt releases of areas that do not fully serve Green Belt purposes could deliver many new homes, and still allow for the retention of land meeting the five Green Belt purposes.Even the Government is considering relaxing policy somewhat for the Green Belt, as seen through the current NPPF consultation (in terms of creating opportunities for starter homes on certain land within the designated Green Belt).However, as it is so politically sensitive, many local authorities are reluctant to release Green Belt land. Politicians are fearful for their seats - or forever being known as the person responsible for allowing “the beautiful green fields to be concreted over”. In actual fact, by responsibly planning through long term release, they would instead be preserving the “beautiful green fields” which may be outside the Green Belt and less sustainably located and instead delivering houses on areas of land that many people probably do not realise are even in the Green Belt. The opportunity for local authorities to address this issue exists, and the time is now, but how many will take this bold approach, and how many will carry on in much the same fashion as they have over the past 20 years?
Whilst much of the industry looks on as the Housing and Planning Bill makes its way through Parliament (NLP's breakdown of what you need to know), eyes in the Thames Valley are firmly fixed on the many local authorities who have either commenced, or are about to commence, consultations on their Local Plans.
In 2014, the Oxford Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) was published and concluded that over 100,000 new homes are needed in Oxfordshire between 2011 and 2031. This was followed in 2015 by the publication of the Central Bucks Housing and Economic Development Needs Assessment (HEDNA) which identifies a need for 43,000 homes in the central Buckinghamshire area between 2013 and 2033. Finally, a presentation on the Berkshire SHMA (as it still has not been published in final form) showed a need of 112,010 homes between 2013 and 2036. The result is a ‘policy off’ local authority identified housing need over a 25 year period in the central Thames Valley area of 261,570 homes. Following scrutiny of the evidence base and application of any policy drivers (e.g. more growth associated with employment) this figure could increase further.With the requirement for local authorities to have ‘produced’ a Local Plan by early 2017, the Thames Valley authorities are all in the midst of Local Plan preparation, with a myriad of approaches. In the case of West Oxfordshire the Council chose to produce a new Plan which did not meet the need identified in the SHMA, without consultation with its neighbours and so it has been sent back to the drawing board.Aylesbury Vale District Council (DC) consulted on its emerging Local Plan at the end of 2015, and included not less than 9 different options for meeting housing need in the (relatively unconstrained) District. More recently, Chiltern DC and South Bucks DC are consulting on a Joint Local Plan with 12 different options for meeting their need, including strategic Green Belt releases. As it stands there are now 9 local authorities in the wider Thames Valley area having recently (since October 2015) undertaken, who are undertaking, or are about to undertake consultations on emerging Local Plans. Those of note are as follows:
Many of these authorities have a number of National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) footnote 9 constraints, most notably the Green Belt and AONB. Whilst some local authorities such as Aylesbury Vale and Wokingham are mostly outside the Green Belt, others- such as RBWM and Chiltern - are heavily constrained by it. Whilst the ‘constrained’ authorities may look to the adjoining councils to assist in meeting this need, the significant level of housing need may mean that the few ‘unconstrained’ authorities simply cannot take all of the unmet need of the others. Furthermore, it may be less sustainable (as considered in the Cambridge Inspector’s report) and potentially more environmentally harmful to meet the need in this fashion, as opposed to strategic Green Belt releases in the ‘constrained’ authorities.What the West Oxfordshire example shows is that for those local authorities that seek to identify housing need unilaterally, or that hope that requirements will lessen over time, they are unlikely to find success with their new Plans. Instead, local authorities should be looking to this challenge as an opportunity to positively plan for their area’s needs over the next 20 years, by tackling the problem head on. Strategic Green Belt release could result in a net benefit by delivering properly planned settlements. Moreover, in these times of local authority austerity, more housing equals more revenue for councils, through both New Homes Bonus and Council tax, coupled with more local workers and shoppers to boost local economies.A ‘head in the sand’ approach will not make the problem go away; those brave enough to meet the challenge could instead be creating tomorrow’s communities today.