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Belt and Braces?

Belt and Braces?

John Aynsley 03 Feb 2020
A new Green Belt section was created when three brief paragraphs were added to the Planning Practice Guidance in July 2019. They relate to quantifying impact on openness and Compensatory Improvements. This blog discusses the aims and implications of Compensatory Improvements and looks at the issues it raises. New Guidance on Compensatory Improvements The guidance has been provided to contextualise Paragraph 138 of the NPPF which states:   “[The LPA should] set out ways in which the impact of removing land from the Green Belt can be offset through compensatory improvements to the environmental quality and accessibility of remaining Green Belt land.” (Ref: NPPF 2019, Para 138)” [Lichfields Emphasis].   “Where it has been demonstrated that it is necessary to release Green Belt land for development, strategic policy-making authorities should set out policies for compensatory improvements to the environmental quality and accessibility of the remaining Green Belt land.” (Ref: PPG, Paragraph: 002 Reference ID: 64-002-20190722) Following release, policies should set out Compensatory Improvements to the environmental quality and accessibility of the remaining Green Belt land, this could include: New or enhanced green infrastructure Woodland or other appropriate planting Landscape and visual impact enhancements Biodiversity improvements New walking or cycling routes It is possible that these Compensatory Improvements could become part of Very Special Circumstances, though this remains unproven. These are to be secured by conditions, S106 or CIL, with S106 recommended to secure the long term maintenance of any improvements. The implication of this guidance is that the LPA must decide, or clients could propose, where to locate the Compensatory Improvements. The remaining Green Belt land where these improvements are located will become of higher value and greater importance and therefore harder to remove from the Green Belt in the future. The wording of the guidance is clear that the improvements should be located in remaining Green Belt land, however in practice it is likely that the areas deleted from the Green Belt will have an area designated for these improvements immediately adjacent, ideally within the ownership of the same landowner. If another landowner is needed, this could add to the complexity of the development and potentially even a ‘ransom’ situation. As land is slowly deleted from the Green Belt over time, these compensatory improvement areas could become parks or landscaped areas surrounded by new urban development; potentially not fulfilling the Green Belt purposes but becoming important urban green spaces. The location and form of Compensatory Improvements now represents a key policy requirement which must be met when proposing sites for removal from the Green Belt. As well as demonstrating the requirement for the site to be deleted, an assessment will need to be made to determine an appropriate package of Compensatory Improvements and a parcel of land within the Green Belt within which the improvements could be located will need to be identified. Developers will then need to propose the nature and extent of the Compensatory Improvements and how they will be delivered and managed. Once secured, it would be necessary to demonstrate both the deliverability of the Compensatory Improvements and that they would constitute a significant benefit for the sites deallocation. Issues and unexplained mechanisms? In light of the above, if there is no area for Compensatory Improvements following the deletion of land, it is not immediately clear how the LPA will locate areas for Compensatory Improvements. It may be that through the Green Belt Review, the LPA, alongside landowners and developers, will identify the most valuable areas of the Green Belt, i.e. the areas which meet most of the five tests. It is worth noting that these may not necessarily be the areas of Green Belt where improvements would have the greatest impact. Given that these areas are the least likely to be deleted due to their positive contributions, it may be the case that the Compensatory Improvements are located on these areas. It would be prudent therefore to understand if Compensatory Improvements required by a sites deletion can be located on this land, and the potential landownership issues this may cause. Alternatively, if improving access is the key objective, the other land close to the urban edge and/or transport infrastructure could be most suitable. Securing a deal on any land needed for Compensatory Improvements will also be crucial. Ideally this should be understood, confirmed with the LPA then a deal done with the landowner before the removal of the Green Belt is publicized through consultation on a draft local plan. If a deal isn’t struck then a landowner may take advantage of an opportunity to increase the value of their land as the housing development becomes more dependant upon it. The additional cost of Compensatory Improvement Land and the improvements themselves also need to be accounted for as an additional cost on the housing development. They could compromise the viability of development when other costs and contributions are taken into account or reduce the return to the landowner to a level that does not incentivise them. If the owners of development land do not own any other land, should the land owner of where the Compensatory Improvements are to be located receive residential ransom values for having them there? While they are indeed crucial to unlocking the Green Belt release, this could be a disproportionate addition to the cost of development for what would be landscaping and ecological enhancements located on another owners parcel of land. Demonstrating that the location of the Compensatory Improvements have already been secured through discussions with landowners will be an essential part of demonstrating the deliverability of a housing allocation, though there is huge uncertainty in assessing what scale of Compensatory Improvements would be considered appropriate. This is completely subjective and there is significant scope for disagreement with officers and councillors. This clearly also presents an opportunity for some landowners. They could receive additional value for their land by offering it as a suitable location for Compensatory Improvements. Alternatively, if one has aspirations for development on a site currently designated as Green Belt, it will be crucial to avoid any Compensatory Improvements being located on this land, though ultimately the landowner will have the final say. Compensatory Improvements could be another well meaning planning mechanism that becomes a highly controversial area as the parameters are established through expensive and costly legal cases. Securing the release of land from the Green Belt for residential development already required ‘exceptional circumstances’. The additional requirement of securing Compensatory Improvements represent a further very difficult obstacle for landowners and developers to overcome. However, with careful planning and negotiation, with a good deal of creativity, if could also present opportunities to unlock suitable land by presenting an attractive considered package of development land and Compensatory Improvements. Lichfields have significant experience in the promotion and development of Green Belt land, we are always open to speaking to landowners and developers on any issues that arise.

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On rocky ground – The ALC system in England and Wales
This blog looks at the Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) system in England and Wales, and how the lack of refinement within the classification system causes problems for planners and communities alike. The ALC system was devised and introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) in 1966. It ratified five categories with which land can be graded, with Grade 1 being ‘excellent quality’ and Grade 5 being land of ‘very poor’ quality. Grade 3 constitutes about half of the agricultural land in England and Wales, and it is further divided into two subgrades, designated 3a and 3b. The basis for classifying land is a set of criteria, listed below from most to least important: Climate - climate is regarded as more favourable as temperature increases and with moderate rainfall, exposure and frost risk; Site Limitations – the gradient of the site has a direct impact on the effectiveness of farm machinery. Flood risk also impacts ALC as the risk and frequency of flooding informs crop choices and impacts upon yield; and Soil Quality – there are many variables within the soil that inform the classification. These include texture, structure, depth, chemical identity, moisture and erosion. Grade 1, Grade 2 and Subgrade 3a are considered to be the ‘Best and most versatile agricultural land’ and it is this land that is given a higher status when considering development as NPPF paragraph 170 states[1]; “Planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by […] recognising the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside, and the wider benefits from natural capital and ecosystem services – including the economic and other benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land, and of trees and woodland.” Figure 1: Agricultural Land Classification of England and Wales 1985 (ALC009) Figure 1 was produced by hand in 1975, it is derived from the criteria outlined above and is currently used on DEFRA and Natural England’s Magic Map[2] platform under the ALC dataset. It is the only map which provides ALC for the entire country. More localised revisions were introduced in 1988, showing the difference between 3a and 3b land. Crucially though the 1975 map does not show the subdivision of Grade 3 land, which happened in 1976. So, whilst the difference between Grade 3a and 3b is key for planning purposes, we do not have a national map base that illustrates its distribution, unless it has been surveyed post 1988. If land is designated as Grade 3, which covers half of England and Wales, then a site-specific assessment by a specialist consultant is necessary to determine whether it is 3a or 3b. This represents a key issue in both plan-making and the determination of applications as paragraph 170 of the NPPF protects the ‘Best and Most Versatile Land’ with the footnote going further – “Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, areas of poorer quality land should be preferred to those of a higher quality.” However, there is currently not the information available to determine the areas of poorer quality land due no assessments having been undertaken to assess the subdivisions of Grade 3. There are options to solve this issue. The first of which would be to assess all Grade 3 land, though clearly this would not be practical or viable. Another potential solution would be to remove Subgrade 3a from the ‘Best and most versatile agricultural land’ definition. This would have two benefits: it would provide full clarity for planners regarding which land is protected through NPPF paragraph 170 by use of Figure 1, and it would reduce the land that is considered ‘best’ to around 21%. Grade 3 could then be given is own policy protections, less restrictive than Grade 1 and 2 land, though granted a level of protection that Grades 4 and 5 do not have. This amendment would set clear boundaries for which land constitutes ‘best and most versatile’ and therefore would allow councils to set policies which protect this land. Furthermore, it would allow councils a clearer view when they come to allocate sites and remove uncertainty for developers and communities. This would represent an overwhelming makeover for this policy, one which I am sure would stabilise the ground upon which the policy sits.   [1] MHCLG, National Planning Policy Framework[2] DEFRA, Magic Map  

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