The debate is heating up as to whether the existing Green Belt (GB) around some urban areas could be altered, to allow much needed additional housing to be built. The pressure on Councils to show a five-year housing supply (which many cannot) immediately puts pressure on areas of the countryside – both within and outside the GB.  Will the GB generally withstand the challenge? 

Over the decades, the GB requirement for openness has prevented urban spread and helped maintain settlements as separate and distinct places. It has preserved green spaces near to the high density populations living in town and cities. Many urban areas are still locked-in by the same GBs which existed in the 1950s.

The Conservatives’ election manifesto promised more homes, increased levels of home ownership and more control to local people over planning and over the protection of the GB. How are these conflicting promises going to be delivered?

The presumption in favour of development has generally improved the chances of development being allowed, since the NPPF came in, in March 2012. Councils have to find sound planning reasons before refusing an application. But the presumption is overturned in GBs, where inappropriate development is prohibited, unless very special circumstances exist. This protection is restrictive and strict.

Under the NPPF, changes to GB boundaries in the local plan may be allowed in exceptional circumstances.  Housing need can be an exceptional case to justify a review of GB boundaries.

In March and October 2014, changes to the Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) set out that unmet housing need was unlikely to outweigh the harm to the GB and other harm, to constitute “very special circumstances” justifying inappropriate development in GBs. The PPG backs up the ability for the NPPF to restrict development in GBs in the local plan area, contrary to the general requirement of meeting objectively assessed housing needs. The PPG has been strengthened further with subsequent government statements.

In June 2014, Meridian Strategic Land Ltd lost at an inquiry over 750 homes in Basildon, as the Secretary of State found that the important Green Belt gap would have been reduced, giving rise to harm of substantial weight. Despite the very low housing supply numbers (just 0.9 to 1.5 years), even that did not amount to very special circumstances.

In November 2014, the Cheshire Local Plan Inspector’s interim report suggested a form of sequential approach for use of GB land for housing. Only once all other sources had been explored, could the use of GB be considered.

In March 2015, the Secretary of State (then Mr Pickles) concluded that GB issues and prematurity in relation to an emerging local plan, trumped the inability of local authorities to demonstrate a five -year supply of housing in two separate cases (for 102 houses in GB at Strensall near York, where no very special circumstances justified the GB harm, and 300 homes on land being considered for GB designation, at Nantwich in Cheshire).

In April, the High Court rejected a parish council’s challenge to Nottinghamshire’s joint strategy approach to GB boundaries. The Court found that the Inspector had adequately considered whether the exceptional circumstances test was met. This means that GB releases could not be ruled out, if housing numbers are increased as part of the core strategy review.

These cases protecting the GB are generally in strong contrast to a recent, rather negative, analysis of Green Belts and proposals for reform by Tom Papworth - “The Green Noose”, which suggests that GBs are outdated and should be abolished, or, as a lesser option, that GB designation is removed from intensive agricultural land, which would enable the undersupply of housing to be redressed in those areas.

His short-term solution would be to remove restrictions from land which is 10 minutes’ walk from a railway station, which would allow the development of 1 million more homes within the GB around London alone. A more moderate report entitled “The Green Belt: A Place for Londoners?” suggests that London’s boroughs should be encouraged to review their GB (especially areas close to transport nodes), to consider how that land could be used most effectively and what the options there are for redesigning a small fraction of the GB for new homes.

While the current planning policies and political will are both very strongly on the side of protecting GB and are unlikely to change in the near future, debates are nevertheless taking place about changing it, due particularly to issues such as housing supply.