Introduced over 60 years ago to prevent urban sprawl, our green belt continues to encourage the regeneration of urban areas. Green belts also provide countryside-next-door for 30 million people. This means that natural public facilities, such as woodlands and local nature reserves, are moments from urban doorsteps.
The public clearly recognises the value of the green belts. A May 2016 poll for the Observer showed that only 9% of people think green belts should be built on to increase housing supply. An August 2015 poll for CPRE showed 64% want to see it protected from development.
Yet our green belts are under attack. CPRE research into draft and accepted local plans shows that the number of houses planned for the green belt has increased to unprecedented levels: local authorities are planning 275,000 houses on England’s green belts, an increase of 25% on last year and almost 200,000 more houses than were planned in 2012.
The Conservatives pledged at the 2015 general election to safeguard green belt land, and the prime minister has himself stated that its protection is ‘paramount’. How, then, does this positive rhetoric tally with the rising numbers of houses planned?
Prompted to respond to CPRE’s research, the government has refused to accept responsibility for the rising numbers. On one hand, ministers claim that local people are in charge of their own destiny: locally-led planning should determine what happens at the local level. On the other, they repeatedly defend the unrealistically high housing targets that councils are being expected to set. Many of these targets exceed 150% of the local average build out rate.
Green belt works best when it is seen as a strategic planning tool, on which local authorities work together to decide how best to develop our cities. But individual councils are exploiting loopholes in planning policy that allow them to release green belt land for housing development in ‘exceptional circumstances’.
A recent illustration of current problems is Birmingham, where the city council submitted a plan to release land for 5,000 houses. The plan was signed off by a government inspector on the grounds that the high levels of housing need constituted the ‘exceptional circumstances’ required to release green belt land for development. But the plan was for Birmingham in isolation, rather than a rounded plan for the whole West Midlands conurbation and its large areas of brownfield land.
It is clear that the government cannot wash its hands of blame by passing responsibility on to local authorities. The government must stop pressuring councils to set unrealistically high housing targets and make clear that housing demand is not in itself an ‘exceptional circumstance’. It should drop recent proposals to release small sites in the green belt for starter homes, and to make intrusive brownfield development easier. And it should encourage councils to seek better alternatives through producing city region-wide plans and adopting a full brownfield first policy.
There is no doubt that we need to build more homes. But the government needs to make it clear that weakening the green belt is not the solution.