How we did it: Deallocating green belt land

Chancellor George Osborne suggested earlier this year that more councils should release green belt sites provided they allocate replacement green areas. How did Cambridge go about a deallocation from 2000 onwards?

Cambridge biomedical campus: built on deallocated land
Cambridge biomedical campus: built on deallocated land
Project: A green belt deallocation

Organisations involved: Cambridge City, South Cambridgeshire, East Cambridgeshire District and Huntingdonshire District Councils

"Cambridge is one of the most pleasant places on earth in which to live...The Cambridge tradition is cherished by the present inhabitants, not merely as something to be preserved but to be continued. Planners who suggest improvements must therefore be certain either that change is inevitable or that clear advantage is to be gained from it."

This paean was written in 1950, and was included in the introduction to the Plan for Cambridge produced by Professor Sir William Holford and H Myles Wright in the aftermath of the Second World War. The principles outlined in the plan guided development in the city for decades and were enhanced in the 1960s when the city was ringed by a protective green belt.

During the late 1990s, however, it became increasingly apparent that change was indeed inevitable and that it would bring clear advantages. Rocketing house prices in the city were becoming prohibitive for even average earners. With many workers forced to move to new developments beyond the green belt, a new army of commuters was formed, creating congestion on the city's roads and adding to air pollution.

In 1999, a group of officers and members from councils across Cambridgeshire, including Cambridge City Council, came together with researchers from the University of Cambridge to draw up and analyse potential models for future development across the county. The Cambridge Futures group's seven scenarios ranged from a low-growth option to the creation of new towns. And it also raised, for the first time, the possibility of releasing green belt land for new housing development.

An assessment of the project at the time by government adviser the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) praised Cambridge Futures' collaborative approach. It added that the group had shown how well the public would respond if they got to choose from a range of options, rather than just being offered a single proposal to approve or reject. CABE's assessment said: "The range of 'futures' gave the public something that they could relate to and showed the impact of alternative strategies on issues such as housing, business production costs, social mix and traffic congestion."

Sara Saunders, the city council's current planning policy manager, says that, although the Cambridge Futures project sat outside the formal planning process, it informed the work of planners preparing RPG6, the regional planning guidance document for the East of England. The document, adopted in 2000, said that development should be sited in various locations near Cambridge, including on the edge of the city, "subject to a review of the green belt".

Saunders emphasises the important role of Cambridge Futures, as well as some informal sub-regional meetings, that brought together council representatives to agree the boundaries of potential development sites. "Some councils faced quite tough political decisions and, of course, there were always going to be differences of opinion," she says. "But there was always a desire to stick with joint working to realise the best solution for the sub-region as a whole."

A further round of detailed studies by the affected councils into development around Cambridge helped to resolve some of the tensions between the councils participating in the process. Saunders says: "Cambridge City Council wanted to see development to the east of Cambridge Airport, but South Cambridgeshire opposed this. One of the studies sided with them, so we reached a compromise."

The studies fed into the Cambridgeshire structure plan, adopted in 2003, which specified that 8,000 homes should be built on green belt and other sites on the edge of Cambridge. It outlined a number of broadly defined locations for the release of green belt land, but called on individual councils to review and draw up the exact boundaries of sites to be deallocated within their local plans.

When beginning work on its local plan, Cambridge City Council was aware that proposing to build on the green belt could meet stiff resistance, according to Saunders. But she says that an open approach to local plan consultation helped. For example, she says the accessibility of the sub-regional forums that helped identify development sites for the local plans created a constructive debate. "The sub-regional groups were not decision-making bodies, but gatherings of top county officials held in public where people could be informed and air their views."

And despite some objections to the principle of green belt release, Saunders claims there were "a lot of people who were engaged and wanted to find the best solution to the development pressures that were affecting their lives". She says: "There was a recognition that there needed to be more development on the edge of the city, especially due to housing need."

After the public discussion, the council put forward a list of proposed development sites in its draft local plan, with detailed boundaries of green belt sites that could be released. Saunders says: "But then landowners came forward requesting that their nearby green belt sites were included in the plan." One developer mounted a legal challenge, demanding that its site be added, although this failed in the High Court.

Other claims by landowners were resolved by the planning inspector who reviewed the draft local plan. Saunders says: "The inspector backed our view of which green belt sites should be released." She says that the amount of detailed preparatory work that had been carried out over previous years was crucial to getting the plan past the inspector. She adds: "We proved to the inspector that we had done a thorough job in justifying the release of green belt land."

In the end, the local plan, which was adopted in 2006, saw 215 hectares of green belt land released for development. Saunders says that most of this land now has planning permission for new communities. And she believes that the lessons learned during the process will be invaluable as Cambridge reviews its plan once again, a process that has already begun. A range of options, including the release of more green belt land, is now out to consultation.

Second Opinion - Paul Johnson, Associate director DLP Consultants (Bedford office)

Q: How crucial was joint working to the deallocation?

A: It was fundamental. The councils accepted that growth could only be achieved by joint working because Cambridge has little space available for development, so there is a need to build in neighbouring council areas. The duty to cooperate was not enshrined in legislation when the Cambridge local plan was being prepared, but they were cooperating through necessity. It shows the benefits of sub-regional planning rather than adopting a narrow "island" mentality.

Q: What is your view on how the council consulted with the public over the plans?

A: The Cambridge Futures process laid the pathway for everything that followed and informed the final policies that were adopted. Without that early consultation, the strategy would not have happened. Cambridge is a highly political city, and outlining the fact that the city had to grow and explaining the various options to do this really warmed the public up to taking on board the issues.

Q: How important was the council's evidence base in getting the plans approved?

A: There was a lot of evidence produced, to the extent that some of the studies challenged the assumptions of ones that went before. This really showed that the researchers were not just producing studies to provide the answer they wanted at the outset. It was comprehensive. Again, a lot was achieved by collaboration in preparing the evidence.

Q: How could the council have improved the way it dealt with the deallocation of green belt areas?

A: The process was handled well, but you could argue that the consultation and evidence gathering was done to death. It was a luxury of the time that there was the money to produce so many studies, but it could have been done in a more streamlined manner. At some point, the extensions to the city will become self-contained settlements because they are so far away from the centre that they will need their own town centres. Perhaps more could have been said about the strategy to deal with this.

Q: What further lessons can other local authorities looking to deallocate green belt land learn from Cambridge's approach?

A: Councils need to be proactive, demonstrating strong local leadership and a desire to deliver development. Councils like this don't exist in a lot of places in the country. Additionally, their evidence base and consultation need to be thorough and front-loaded. Money is tight, and councils will not be able to deliver the same amount of evidence as Cambridge did. But joint working with neighbouring councils is paramount.

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