Chipping away the Green Belt

Since 2011, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have published annual statistics[1] of the Green Belt. As can be seen in our video, these statistics show that there is more loss than gain of Green Belt.

But most change to the Green Belt has been small-scale, between -2% and 2% percent. And the headline numbers do not tell the true story; for example, the largest loss of Green Belt in Coventry includes the re-designation of Green Belt to Local Green Space[2].

Given that there is greater loss of Green Belt than gain, and that the loss of Green Belt is such a sensitive issue (so sensitive that there is no planning guidance on how to make changes to Green Belt…) how can the losses be offset?

National policy is the starting point. The Green Belt has its own chapter in the National Planning Policy Framework[3]: ‘Protecting Green Belt land’. (This suggests it is always under threat of being damaged/lost rather than a valuable policy that helps to limit sprawl and coalescence.)

Relating to new Green Belt, it says: “The general extent of Green Belts across the country is already established … New Green Belts should only be established in exceptional circumstances, for example when planning for larger scale development such as new settlements or major urban extensions.”

You can surmise from these sentences that new Green Belt across England is not up for debate, and that the preferred circumstances for adding new Green Belt is when new settlements are being proposed, rather than existing settlements that are under threat of coalescing or sprawling.

The NPPF also requires criteria to be met for new Green Belt proposals. One of these is that it must be demonstrated why normal planning and development management policies would not be adequate.

Cheshire East Council recently tried to add new Green Belt, as they felt their existing Green Gaps policy was not strong enough to resist development pressures, but the Inspector concluded that the circumstances were not exceptional enough to allow for new Green Belt. And in Guildford, new Green Belt was proposed to prevent coalescence between two urban areas, but the Inspectors dismissed the proposal as “separation can be maintained through ordinary non-Green Belt policies”.

Therefore, it will be difficult to add new Green Belt when the default position is that “normal” policies should suffice.  The campaigns by the Campaign to Protect Rural England to get new Green Belt established around Norwich[4] and Southampton[5] will need to think carefully about their exceptional circumstances cases, or just badge the proposals as a normal policy rather than Green Belt.

On reflection, it seems strange that the general extent of the Green Belt is already established and fixed, especially when there are Green Belts around Oxford and Cambridge but not around other similar sized cities. And with such exceptional circumstances needed for new Green Belt, and normal policies being able to do just as good a job, the Green Belt appears destined to be endlessly chipped away over the years as the population grows and development pressures increase.