Briefing: Change of tone in reiteration of green belt practice guidance

Newly issued government practice advice reasserts the presumption against development in the green belt to meet housing need. Ian Tant reports

Green belt: government reasserts policy position
Green belt: government reasserts policy position

Q What has the government announced about meeting housing needs and green belts?

A The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has amended its online National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG) on housing and economic land availability assessment to draw attention to existing policy on the role of green belt and other constraints in setting housing levels in local plans.

The guidance was issued in a DCLG press release earlier this month entitled "Councils must protect our precious green belt land". The document sets out communities secretary Eric Pickles’ intention that "when planning for new buildings, protecting our precious green belt must be paramount".

Q What advice does the guidance provide on whether housing and economic needs override constraints on use of the green belt?

A The guidance reminds planners that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) should be read as a whole. It emphasises that need is not the only factor to be considered when drawing up local plans. Objectively assessed needs should be met unless the adverse impacts outweigh the benefits of fulfilling them, it says.

Q What advice does it give on how far councils have to meet their full housing needs?

A The guidance goes on to restate the NPPF requirement for local planning authorities to assess their full housing needs through a strategic housing market assessment, but clarifies that this is just the "first stage" in developing a local plan.

Once need has been established, it says authorities should prepare a strategic housing land availability assessment to establish realistic assumptions about the availability of land to meet this need. Within this, account should be taken of constraints such as green belt that might restrict an authority’s ability to do so.

The new paragraphs are not the only reference to this matter in the NPPG. Paragraph 034, which remains unaltered, already states that unmet housing need, including that for traveller sites, is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt and constitute the very special circumstances justifying inappropriate development on sites in the green belt.

Q Does this guidance clarify the NPPF, or does it represent a departure from it?

A The document constitutes guidance rather than policy and it is firmly rooted in the NPPF. It goes no further than the framework, neither does it amend the policy.

Q Why has the government issued this guidance now?

A In advance of the general election next May, there is evidently growing unease over the potential effect of the NPPF on both the green belt and on greenfield sites more generally. The government has therefore sought to restate its commitment to protection of the green belt – and also to prioritise brownfield land, although this forms no overt part of the new guidance.

It’s the tone of the press release, rather than the guidance itself, that marks a possible change in approach. The message appears to set the protection of environmental and other assets at least on a par with meeting housing needs. Local authorities that follow the message rather than the actual guidance could be led to believe that it is acceptable to fail to meet housing needs.

Q Does the guidance downgrade the duty to cooperate?

A It makes no comment on the duty to cooperate, which remains a statutory requirement. In practice, any council that comes to the view that it cannot meet its objectively assessed housing needs will still be expected to work with neighbouring local authorities to identify where unmet needs might be accommodated.

It’s here that authorities seeking to "export" their needs could come under pressure to review the extent of constraints – particularly policy constraints such as green belt. Authorities asked to import others’ housing needs can reasonably expect exporters to have sought all reasonable ways of meeting their full need – including by making best use of previously developed land – before calling for help.

Ian Tant is senior partner at consultants Barton Willmore

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