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?