08 Mar 2016
Article originally featured in Insider South West.
In 2012, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was heralded as a major step forward in simplifying our national planning policy. Hundreds of pages of planning policy were condensed into 59 pages. In doing so, it was inevitable that some aspects of planning policy would become less clear and this has been the case in terms of Green Belt and in particular, the delivery of sports facilities.National planning policy emphasises that we should ‘positively plan’ for sport and on the face of it within the NPPF there are lots of positive messages to support sport and healthy communities which are key Government objectives. Unfortunately such messages were not fully translated into actual policy and this is particularly the case for sports and recreation uses within the Green Belt. As a result, over the past few years planning decisions have been informed instead via a series of planning appeals and High Court judgements.
Due to the lack of urban sites and the significant demand for housing and commercial uses it is understandable that local sports clubs with very dated facilities (and in the absence of major grant funding) will need to look to new sites at the urban edge. These are generally funded via the sale of their existing club assets for alternative uses such as housing. The likelihood is that many of these urban edge sites are heavily constrained by planning limitations such as Green Belt which creates complexities in promoting sports projects.
The NPPF states that local planning authorities should “plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt, such as looking for opportunities to provide … opportunities for outdoor sport and recreation”. However it does not list sport and recreation (e.g. playing pitches) as “appropriate” development within the Green Belt. This has led to a number of applications being refused planning permission for the change of use from agriculture to playing fields.In the absence of clarity on these issues, local authorities and planning inspectors are considering proposals to change the use of land to outdoor sport and recreation use as “inappropriate” development as a starting point. This means that such development is harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in “very special circumstances”. This is one of the toughest tests in planning. It requires a very detailed case presenting to fully justify the club’s needs, that there are no alternative non-Green Belt sites available as well as any special benefits e.g. new community facilities. Preparing such a case is time consuming and costly particularly for clubs and charities with access to limited or no resources.Prior to 2012, it was generally accepted that playing pitches were acceptable in principle within the Green Belt which in my opinion was sensible. Buildings and related facilities could still be considered to be “inappropriate” requiring “very special circumstances” to be demonstrated but there was greater certainty regarding the recreation use being “appropriate” as a starting point which was helpful. Since then, matters have become more complex and further clarity is needed through updated planning guidance. Best practice should also be shared of how projects can be delivered whilst preserving the openness of the Green Belt.I have recently been working with the Dings Crusaders RFC to relocate the charity and club to the Frenchay Green Belt and following recent Council members’ support, the project is hopefully close to now becoming a reality. The new site ‘Shaftesbury Park’ will include extensive sports and community facilities to enable the club to grow and serve the existing and new communities of the North Fringe. It will be fantastic to see the long-established charity and rugby club continue their success. After a 10 year search for a new site this opportunity was their ‘last chance saloon’ (as their Chairman stated) and without it they would most likely fade away with their current home severely constrained and ill equipped to take the club forward and meet the requirements of modern sport.
Shaftesbury Park for Dings Crusaders RFC | Image courtesy of Ferguson Mann Architects
It is imperative that the right planning policy basis is established at a national level and local level to support the promotion of sport within our local communities, addressing the current complexities of delivering sport and recreation within the Green Belt. Without this, planners will continue to take an extremely cautious approach to such proposals. That is not to say that proposals shouldn’t require detailed consideration on important matters such as layout, scale and design in order to minimise impact on the openness of the Green Belt which should rightly still remain a key planning consideration.
As our urban centres continue to grow there will be inevitably greater pressure on the Green Belt to be actively used for sport and recreation and this will be particularly the case in the West of England over the next decade. We need to ensure that the Green Belt works for us and ensure that we positively plan for the future of our sports clubs that play a vital role in our communities.