David Cameron has made several statements regarding his wish to preserve the UK’s Green Belt including ‘I am a countryman’ and ‘building more homes and protecting our countryside can go hand in hand’.
However, many of the pledges which were made within the Conservative manifesto are appearing rather hollow as the housebuilding revolution plays out.
According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, from 2013-14 to 2014-15 over 5,000 acres of green belt were removed from the classification and used for building purposes. It raises questions about Mr Cameron’s commitment to preserving the countryside for future generations.
Recent CPRE research revealed that at least 275,000 houses are planned for England’s green belt. This concerning figure is 25% more than last year and almost 200,000 more than in 2012, when the government introduced its new planning policy – the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The actual figure will be far higher than this as local plans are revised and restrictions on green belt lifted across the country.
Perhaps one of the most interesting issues here is not simply the destruction of the countryside, but also the political process which underpins this. Mr Cameron has talked many times of placing real power in the hands of local people to make local decisions, and transferring power from the central state to local people. This appears to be at odds with the planning process and the local plans being developed by local authorities.
Living within the Cheshire East Council boundaries, I have taken a significant interest in the process which is currently being played out. What has become absolutely clear during this period is that local people have no power and via directives from the central state, the council is planning to erode massive areas of green belt against the wishes of the majority of local people.
Green belt appears to simply be an inconvenience and restrictions are lifted as and when a council chooses to do so.
In Cheshire East, the local plan was initially developed alongside the local towns found within it and many residents assumed that this consultative process would indeed lead to a balanced approach to housebuilding. Balancing the need for more affordable housing with the wishes of local residents to maintain the green belt. Local power for local people to make local decisions.
Unfortunately this was not the case. The inspector appointed for the central state reviewed the local plan and asked Cheshire East Council to increase its housing allocation – which they duly did, by over 200% in some areas.
The consultation for the ‘revised’ local plan which incorporates these unbalanced increases has recently ended and while the outcome of this process is yet to be determined the concerns of the local population are increasingly familiar. Many fear that the adoption of local plans – including the one being consulted on by Cheshire East Council – is predetermined by housebuilding targets essentially imposed from a central state and delivered by local councils.
Green belt appears to simply be an inconvenience and restrictions are lifted as and when a council chooses to do so. DGLG stated that restrictions with regard to building on green belt land should only be lifted in ‘exceptional’ circumstances. Increasingly the term ‘exceptional’ is being watered down and lost in translation.
It would therefore appear that Mr Cameron’s stated intention to preserve the green belt for future generations is a rather fluid objective.
As one resident of a small Cheshire town said recently: ‘We can all see the need for more affordable housing especially for young people, the problem we have is people are making decisions on how to integrate this from many miles away and with no real understanding of local communities. Things are simply being imposed upon us.’
The prime minister’s message of local power for local people to make local decisions – has failed to reach either local councils or local communities.