Planning minister Nick Boles' letter of complaint last month to the Planning Inspectorate over the examination of Reigate and Banstead Borough Council's core strategy hit the headlines.
The plan had passed examination and was poised for adoption, but its allowance of green belt release in case of a shortfall of housing sites had sparked local opposition, spearheaded by Reigate's Tory MP, Crispin Blunt. One of the modifications that inspector Martin Pike had proposed was that the Tory-controlled authority should "recognise that some loss of green belt to housing development will be necessary.
Boles wrote that he was "disturbed" by the inspector's language, which he said "invited misinterpretation of government policy". The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that a green belt boundary may be altered only in "exceptional circumstances", Boles said. It "must always be transparently clear" in inspectors' reports, he added, that if councils go down this path it is their choice to do so. The secretary of state would consider intervening in local plans, he added, if it seemed as if an inspector had forced green belt release.
Igniting a public debate
Boles' intervention immediately ignited debate. Was this a shift of government policy on green belt development? Blunt certainly thought so. He said: "This is utterly unequivocal. The minister has said that the green belt trumps housing numbers, which is a sea change." The reaction from the development sector was unsurprisingly one of deep concern. In a letter to Boles, the chief executive of the Home Builders Federation (HBF), Stewart Baseley, expressed fears that his letter to PINS could have a "potentially disastrous effect" on meeting the nation's housing crisis.
In a second letter sent to Pitt 10 days later, Boles moved to clarify his comments. The first letter "did not signal a change of policy or approach" by the government, he said, and it was only the inspector's use of language he was concerned about.
Since then, the council has deferred a meeting of its executive which was due to vote on the strategy on 10 April, so that members could absorb the latest developments. An officers' report for the deferred meeting recommended that the plan be adopted and looked in depth at the implications of Boles' letter. Following what it called "unequivocal" legal advice, it concluded that there had been no change in government policy. Officers also rejected any implication that the authority had been pressured into releasing green belt by the inspector.
However, the council's chief executive wrote to Department for Communities and Local Government permanent secretary Sir Bob Kerslake to complain about Blunt's conduct. He said the MP's arrangement of a meeting with Boles, with a view to asking him to alter the core strategy's land allocations and housing targets, threatened to "subvert" the plan preparation process by introducing changes "that have not been considered through the democratic process". Kerslake wrote back to confirm that the meeting had been postponed, although it has subsequently taken place.
Now that the dust has settled, what impact do experts think the exchanges have had, if any? Commentators agree that Boles' intervention, extraordinary as it was (see panel), did not signal a policy change. Catriona Riddell, the Planning Officers Society's strategic planning convener, says: "This does not give green belt authorities a 'get out of jail' card."
They will still have to meet their needs, she adds, and may sometimes find green belt release the best option. Andrew Whitaker, the Home Builders Federation's planning director, says the second Boles letter has eased concerns of the development sector prompted by the initial letter.
But despite Boles' clarification, other senior figures in the development sector are still worried about the effect the first letter could have on other green belt authorities. John Acres, a director at planning consultancy Turley, says: "It's a political message." He is worried that authorities might interpret it as meaning they do not need to review the green belt, even if they have no other way to meet housing need. Whitaker agrees that this is a "real concern". Leonora Rozee, a former PINS deputy chief executive, says the intervention by Boles "could give the perception that green belt trumps all".
No evidence of coercion
It is also clear, experts agree, that, in Reigate's case, it was the council that opted for the green belt review in their local plan and there is no evidence of inspector coercion. Riddell thinks Boles may have been unaware of the fact that, following the NPPF, an inspector's report was no longer binding on the local authority.
If not a change in policy, what does the episode show us about the government's thinking on green belt development? Rozee thinks the government "has got itself in an awful tangle" over the issue. She says: "It's under enormous pressure over the green belt. It's frightened every time you have a headline suggesting that green belt might be touched."
Planning lawyer Beverley Firth, a partner at Mills & Reeve, and Acres believe the episode indicates a "restatement of localism" by the government leading up to the general election, making it clear that authorities should be in the driving seat of any green belt review. Acres says: "It's sending a message that power has shifted back to councils".
Firth adds that it was a good opportunity for Boles to soften his controversial pro-housing growth position. While Reigate Council's officers advocate adoption, Blunt says that, following his meeting with Boles, he is still "optimistic" that Tory members will reject the green belt review. Whatever decision members eventually make on the strategy, it will no doubt be avidly watched by both the sector and other green belt authorities well beyond Surrey.