The government’s White Paper promises to “Promote the stewardship and improvement of our precious countryside and environment, ensuring important natural assets are preserved, the development potential of brownfield land is maximised, that we support net gains for biodiversity and the wider environment and actively address the challenges of climate change”.
So, what is new? In terms of land within the Green Belt and stewardship of the environment, there is little change proposed by the White Paper. There are several references to securing net gain in respect of biodiversity improvements which reinforces the provisions contained within the Environment Bill, currently making its way through parliament. There is reference to a further consultation on securing environmental improvements in the Autumn. Presumably the further consultation will put some flesh on the bones of the proposals in the Environment Bill.
In terms of White Paper, there is persistent reliance on the ability to deliver meaningful housing numbers on the limited supply of brownfield land available. There is an interesting reference to building more homes at “gentle densities in and around town centres” on land which is “on brownfield land and near existing infrastructure”. Quite how this all hangs together remains to be seen.
There is such an emphasis on housing within the White Paper that other land uses are barely mentioned. For example, what about the increasing amount of employment land that will inevitably be required in the post-Covid world - could this type of land use be considered to be compatible with Green Belt?
At the local level, any Green Belt release tends to be highly emotive and inevitably there is an element of political reluctance to drive meaningful release. The White Paper proposes the simplification of the role of local plans with land being identified as either a “growth area” suitable for substantial development, a “renewal area” for “some” development or a “protected area” where development is restricted.
In March of this year I wrote an article regarding the planning appeal system playing an increased role in terms of the release of Green Belt sites. This followed several planning appeal decisions involving the release of land from the Green Belt and what matters can be considered to constitute “very special circumstances” for the grant of planning permission in the Green Belt. The direction of travel then was that the appeal system seemed to be a more attractive option for those with Green Belt sites (rather than seeking Green Belt release). The article can be viewed here. The introduction of the notion of national “protected areas” in planning policy terms hints at heavier protection of the Green Belt which may ultimately lead to the reversal of the trend in terms of planning appeals.
Interestingly, there is no mention of the need for meaningful review of the Green Belt by local planning authorities and no indication that there will be any form of national review by central government. In many ways this is a missed opportunity to insist that local authorities review their existing Green Belt as part of the local plan process - a policy which may not be a vote winner for the government, but the reality is that Green belt release can be too sensitive to be dealt with at a local level.
Consultation on the White Paper runs for 12 weeks from 6 August 2020 and so perhaps it is time, as an industry, to engage on the issues around Green Belt. For example, can a case be made that certain employment uses can be acceptable within “protected areas”? What can be done to ensure that local authorities carry out meaningful review of their existing Green Belt areas?
As ever, the devil will be in the detail in the event that the provisions being consulted on do make their way into legislation.