Green belt appellants face an uphill battle

In the list of cherished national institutions that politicians know they meddle with at their peril, the green belt ranks close to the National Health Service.

Green belt: cherished national institution
Green belt: cherished national institution

Whitehall strategists will therefore no doubt have been dismayed by national newspaper headlines which last week savaged senior coalition government figures for putting the green belt under threat. The Daily Mail accused the Prime Minister of making a "hollow promise" to treasure the green belt, while the Telegraph said that the environment secretary Owen Paterson had suggested that the green belt cannot be frozen "in aspic".

In both cases, the headlines were misleading, the headline writers conflating "green belt" with "greenfield". David Cameron and Paterson were making the well-trodden argument that building on greenfield sites is necessary to help young families onto the housing ladder.

In fact, recent secretary of state decisions suggest that, rather than sanctioning the loosening of the green belt, government ministers have been doing the very opposite. While communities secretary Eric Pickles has been prepared to approve numerous housing schemes on greenfield land where local planning authorities have been found to be lacking a five-year housing land supply, he has made it clear that this rule is not sufficient to trump green belt protections.

In June, he refused plans for 165 homes on the Essex green belt at Thundersley, despite the local authority having an "exceptionally low" housing land supply of just 0.7 years. In his decision letter, Pickles said that allowing the appeal would have set an "undesirable precedent". The following month, a written ministerial statement said that Pickles "considers that the single issue of unmet demand ... is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt".

Pickles has now issued his verdict on the first major green belt housing scheme to come across his desk since the July written ministerial statement was issued on his behalf. In the decision, handed down earlier this month, the secretary of state overruled an inspector to block permission for a scheme comprising up to 200 homes on green belt to the north of Coventry.

The inspector had concluded that the benefits of the scheme, including the provision of a large area of public open space on previously private land, would "clearly outweigh" the harm to the green belt. But the secretary of state disagreed, leading experts to question whether the bar has been set too high in relation to permissions on green belt land.

The latest decision suggests that appellants seeking permission for major housing development on the green belt face an uphill battle. But a blanket ban would appear to run counter to the National Planning Policy Framework. It is clear that inappropriate development should not be approved in the green belt, except in very special circumstances. It would be a shame if a desire to avert unfavourable newspaper headlines prevents the secretary of state from granting permission in instances where these very special circumstances exist.

Jamie Carpenter, deputy editor, Planning

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