Saturday, 14 March 2015

No we do not need to build on the green belt

At our meeting on Thursday we once again heard Councillors insisting that they have to build on green belt to meet government imposed housing needs. This is completely opposed to what the government is actually saying. Here are some excerpts from the meeting in which Cllr Philip Mynott and Cllr David Kendall of Brentwood took this view while referring to my presentation on the subject as misleading. They are followed by Essex Councillors Roger Hirst and Rodney Bass who gave the opposite view.

I disagree strongly with Philip Mynott and stand by my claims. He used Uttelsford as an example of a council that had its Local Plan rejected by the planning inspectorate. He neglected to mention that while Basildon and Brentwood are immersed in Green Belt, Uttlesford has only a tiny amount of it.

Here is an extract from my objection to the Dunton Garden Suburb consultation in which I justify why it is not necessary to build on green belt land.


Protection for green belt land is set out clearly in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) with important clarification in the Planning Practice Guidance (PPG).  

The NPPF section 79 says that “the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence” The proposed site for Dunton Garden Suburb covers an area of 420 hectares of green belt land including farm land and a golf course at Dunton Hills and the historic village of Dunton. Apart from the golf course (which has not harmed the utility of the land as green belt or its scenic quality), little has changed in the character of this area since the green belt boundaries were first defined over 50 years ago. Although precise plans have not been provided it is expected that about 250 hectares would be developed for up to 6000 homes. Even on a national scale this would signal a significant acceleration in the loss of green belt land which cannot be considered only in isolation. If sections of land of this size are allowed to be removed from the green belt without and justification other than the housing shortage then there is nothing to prevent the gradual loss of most of the green belts in the UK.

Section 80 of the NPPF described the five purposes of green belt all of which apply to the land which is proposed as the site for Dunton Garden Suburb as follows:
“to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas”: Basildon itself can now be classed as a large built up area whose sprawl needs to be restricted by its green belt. Furthermore the green belt around Basildon is part of the metropolitan green belt which protects us from the sprawl of London.
“to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another” Basildon is currently separated from West Horndon by only two miles of green belt and this would be reduced to less than one mile if Dunton Garden Suburb is build. It would be a large and clear step towards the eventual joining of London with Basildon.
to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment” Dunton Hills is a scenic area of countryside with field boundaries that date back to at least the Middle Saxon era. It is home to important biodiversity and wildlife habitats. Building over this land would be a serious encroachment of the countryside
“to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns” Dunton Village itself is a community mentioned in the doomsday book whose character is shaped by the history of Basildon. It includes a mobile homes park which houses many elderly and vunerable residents who have been living there happily for many years with connections to the earlier plotlands areas. The new development would wipe the village of Dunton off the map.
to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.” Such brownfields sites throughout the country should be redeveloped before any green belt land such as this can be touched

The construction of new housing on green belt land is classed as inappropriate development in section 89 of the NPPF and section 87 stipulates that this can only be allowed in “very exceptional circumstances” This means in section 88 that the harm must be “clearly outweighed by other considerations” As I will elaborate further below, the harm is very much greater than any other considerations. Circumstances that might be considered very exceptional could include the loss of small parts of green belt for a much needed school or hospital, certainly not the loss of large sections of it for ordinary housing.

I understand that in the case of Dunton Garden Suburb the loss of green belt could take the form of a change in green belt boundaries through a green belt review. Section 83 of the NPPF says that “once established the green belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances” The authorities must have “regard to their intended permanence in the long term” Since these areas of green belt have been established for decades there is no justification for making the changes that would be required to allow the building on Dunton Garden Suburb. It would be flying in the face of the clearly stated intention that green belt should be permanent. The justification for such a large loss would have to be very substantial to justify the proposed harm. The current housing crisis can be resolved in other ways so it does not constitute such circumstances.

In considering a move which would lead to the loss of a large part of green belt land to housing the local authorities should take into account public opinion rather than pressure from developers and planning consultancies who stand to gain financially from their ability to build on cheaper green belt land. For example, a poll in The Guardian showed that 75% of the public who responded thought that houses should not be built on green belt land. In a poll in the maidenhead-advertiser 72.7% said that not enough was being done to protect the green belt.

The Basildon and Brentwood councils have repeatedly claimed that they must build on green belt land to fulfil the Objectively Assessed Needs (OAN) for housing as prescribed by central government. This claim is false in two ways. Firstly the numbers produced by the councils for their OAN are too high. This overstatement has been detailed for the Basildon figures in the white paper prepared by the Billericay Action Group (Analysis of Basildon’s ‘Objectively Assessed Need’ v3.0.) Reasons for the overstatement include the failure to take into account windfall brownfield sites and the use of out-of-date growth statistics. The same points apply to the Brentwood figures.

Secondly and even more importantly the government has made it absolutely clear that the calculation of the Objectively Assessed Need is only the first stage in the preparation of the local authorities housing targets. Paragraph 44 of the PPG answers the question “Do housing and economic needs override constraints on the use of land, such as Green Belt?” by saying that objectively assessed needs do not have to be met if the benefits of doing so would be significantly and demonstrably outweighed when assessed against adverse impacts. This includes where the policies of the NPPF indicate that development should be restricted including those related to land designated as Green Belt. In paragraph 45 which addresses the question “Do local planning authorities have to meet in full housing needs identified in needs assessments?” the PPG states that “assessing need is just the first stage in developing a Local Plan” and clarifies that when preparing an SHLAA the local authority should take into account “any constraints such as Green Belt, which indicate that development should be restricted and which may restrain the ability of an authority to meet its need.” In paragraph 34 of the PPG on the question: “In decision taking, can unmet need for housing outweigh Green Belt Protection?” the answer is quite simply that “Unmet housing need (including for traveller sites) is unlikely to outweigh the harm to the Green Belt and other harm to constitute the ‘very special circumstances’ justifying inappropriate development on a site within the Green Belt.”

Both Brentwood and Basildon are immersed in green belt so they can easily justify using the green belt as a constraint to reduce their housing target below their OAN once optimal use of all brownfield sites has been accounted for. Nevertheless they tell us they fear that when their local plan is submitted to the planning inspectorate it will be rejected if the OAN is not met by the targets. I have personally talked with the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP to ask him if this is the case and he stated categorically that the planning inspectors will not be able to reject the plan for this reason because the policy is absolutely clear about the need to protect the green belt. Furthermore he told me that if local authorities have such concerns there is a scheme to let them seek advice from former inspectors.

What Eric Pickles has said to us about using green belt as a constraint was consistent with his public statements dating back to his completion of the NPPF. The situation was clarified again in Westminster during a debate on the NPPF on 5th March 2015 when Brandon Lewis MP who is the minister for Housing and Planning said “The Government attach the highest importance to the protection of green belt. Our new guidance in October last year re-emphasised that importance, adding that the presence of constraints might limit the ability of planning authorities to meet their needs.” This prompted Laurence Robertson to say that “Some local authorities, however—this is happening in our joint core strategy area—will redesignate the green belt when submitting their local plan or the JCS, so that it is not green belt any more. If that is not a contravention of Government policy, I do not know what is. Can nothing be done about that?” to which Brandon Lewis replied “A key consideration is that it should not be up to us in Westminster to decide what is important to the local area; it is up to the local council. We have put the protections in place—we have made it clear that development on green belt should be exceptional and the last resort, and even then should be carried out only with great care and consideration. If local authorities make a green belt area a developable piece of land, they should do so only as part of a full review and a local plan process. Indeed, there are examples of inspectors turning down such work if there is not a strong evidence base to show why the local authority wants it. So green belt should be redesignated only in exceptional circumstances and as a last resort. Furthermore, the NPPF notes green belt as one of the environmental constraints on development in the framework and local planning process. A core principle of the framework is that planning authorities should recognise the intrinsic character and beauty of their countryside. The characteristics of different landscape and the importance of ensuring that development is suitable for the local context should be recognised. As my hon. Friends have mentioned this afternoon, much countryside is loved and cherished by local communities. I acknowledge such concerns, and I will write to the Planning Inspectorate setting out publicly how the existing policy should operate, to ensure that it is fully understood not only by the inspectorate, but—to go back to my earlier point—by councils and councillors as well.”

In view of this there is absolutely no justification for Basildon or Brentwood Borough Councils to claim that they must build on green belt land to meet their OAN. On the contrary they should use the green belt as a constraint to reduce their housing targets and protect the green belt as required in the NPPF. In view of the statements by Eric Pickles and Brandon Lewis it seems more likely that the planning inspectorate would reject a plan that removes areas of the green belt without good reason beyond unmet housing need, than one which does not meet its OAN due to green belt constraints.
If the Councillors and planning officers of Brentwood and Basildon have any further doubts of this they can surely talk directly to Eric Pickles. If he is willing to discuss this with an ordinary member of the public such as myself who is not even one of his constituents I am sure he would also talk to them.

Any justification for the loss of green belt through exceptional circumstances must be evidence based. The PPG states that unmet housing needs is unlikely to outweigh the harm, therefore further justification is needed. No such evidence has been provided. Indeed the only other possible reason for the council’s apparently strong desire to build on green belt land is the financial incentives provided by the government through schemes such as the New Homes Bonus which for Basildon had risen to £ 1,700,178 in 2013-14 and for Brentwood to £798,685 and which could rise to even higher levels if the councils ambitious targets for housing can be achieved. Further monetary incentives come from the Affordable Housing Program and through schemes such as the Thames Gateway project and the South East Local Enterprise Partnership.

I can understand that the councils are tempted to reach out for these grants and bonuses in the face of cuts from central government to funding allocations accompanied by rate caps. However, such short term financial pressures cannot be used as evidence to justify any loss of green belt land.  
The housing shortage in the UK is a serious problem and I recognise the need for action, but this must be done with more vision. The housing density of London is only half that of the other major financial centres of the world; New York and Tokyo. Instead of saying that housing needs to be near London because of the availability of jobs there, we also need to look at ways of creating more new jobs in other areas of the country where growth would be more sustainable. If financial incentives from the government do not encourage the right planning aims then our local politicians need to lobby their government and political parties to put in place better policies that do.

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