On Monday Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) released research showing that housing development proposed for the Green Belt has increased by another 50,000 to more than a quarter of a million houses. CPRE’s analysis comes in the context of Government’s proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which will relax some restrictions on house building in the Green Belt.
National Trust-commissioned research in 2013 indicated that a majority of local authorities were planning to allocate Green Belt land for housing. Recent Department for Communities and Local Government statistics from March 2015 showed that 11 local planning authorities reduced their Green Belt in the previous year (not more than four a year had changed their Green Belts in previous years) with Christchurch reducing theirs by 6% and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne by 9%. Since then Coventry have revealed plans for major changes in their Green Belt which could see it reduced in net-terms by around 20%.
It is not just allocations in local plans that are a cause of concern. Speculative applications by developers are also being approved, even where the local council opposes them. A few weeks ago Communities Secretary Greg Clark approved proposals for up to 1,500 new homes in the Green Belt that is meant to stop Cheltenham and Gloucester merging into one conurbation, and in March, 150 homes were approved in the Green Belt in Cheshire, after Cheshire East Council lost a legal challenge in the Court of Appeal.
Why does this concern the National Trust?
As an organisation dedicated to the preservation and conversation of special places for ever, for everyone, we believe the Green Belt has an important role to play in keeping places distinct and special. Indeed, one of our founders, Octavia Hill, is thought by many to have coined the term ‘Green Belt’ when she was campaigning to save green space in London for city dwellers to enjoy in 1875. For 60 years it has successfully prevented the urban sprawl that other countries have seen, retaining open land between our towns and villages to maintain the uniqueness and individual identities of places. In a recent survey 64% of people agreed that the Green Belt should be protected, with only 17% disagreeing. Which is why we think it’s important to maintain the protections the Green Belt offers.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t understand that the nation needs more housing. We support appropriate development of the right design in the right place. We have a strong presumption that the Green Belt isn’t the right place, both for the original reason it was created, to prevent sprawl, and for the important other benefits it provides now and has the potential to provide into the future.
As our population grows, and housing needs increase, we need more rather than less high quality green spaces. The benefits to people of having easy access to green spaces in their daily lives has been well documented. The very roots of the National Trust are in the impassioned belief of our founders in the need for accessible open spaces for everyone, particularly people working in towns and cities, to enjoy.
With land in finite supply the challenge of providing necessary housing and green spaces is considerable. Both need to be within or close to existing towns and cities which have the services to support housing, and residents and workers who want access to green spaces for recreation and relaxation.
Some argue that our Green Belt is a good place to build because it’s of poor environmental quality, under intensive industrialised agriculture and offers little opportunity for public access and enjoyment. Turn that on its head, and it’s possible to envisage how a change in agricultural practice combined with well-designed tree planting can greatly enhance both the wildlife and landscape value of Green Belt, and how people could benefit from increased access to quality green space on our doorsteps. Green Belt once built on is gone for ever.
There are other options. We support the Government’s clear emphasis on prioritising previously developed (brownfield) land for housing development. CPRE analysis has revealed that brownfield has the potential to deliver nearly a million of the homes this country needs.
Moreover, there are plenty of existing sites with planning consent for housing that aren’t being developed. It’s wrong to blame the planning system alone for constraining the numbers of houses being built – last year 253,000 homes were granted planning permission, but delivery by developers is falling well short of that. Government’s focus should be on working with developers to deliver their end of the bargain, and build houses they have been granted planning permission to build.
Green Belt boundaries have never been fixed in stone. There has always been scope for small adjustments to ensure sustainable growth in our cities and towns, but these should be carried out through a locally-led strategic planning process with community input. Any resulting development should be of exemplary design. We welcome community initiatives like the Prince’s Foundation’s Beauty in my Backyard toolkit and ResPublica’s “Community Right to Beauty” proposals to encourage good design and empower people to shape development in their places.
It’s clear that the future of the Green Belt will continue to spark debate. On Monday evening our Land, Landscapes and Nature Director, Peter Nixon, was an event panellist as part of the Building Centre’s Beyond the Green Belt exhibition. This blog is based on his speech. Peter ended by sharing our experience that the demand is immense, and growing, for people in towns and cities to enjoy green spaces on their doorstep. Octavia Hill’s words are as real today as they were 100 years ago in her observation that “the need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and … the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs, common to all”. Today the National Trust has over 200 million visits a year to our outdoors properties, ten times the number to our houses. And nowhere more so than next to cities. People are voting with their feet.