Local Plan Watch: Why more councils are releasing Green Belt land in their local plans

Green belts were once considered sacrosanct and immune from development pressures. But evidence suggests this may no longer be the case as official statistics revealed that during 2014/15 the green belt underwent the largest decline for five years, with experts warning that more councils could look to review their boundaries over the next few years.

Green belt: decline in overall area
Green belt: decline in overall area

Official government statistics published this month showed that the total green belt area declined by 2,000 hectares between 2013/14 and 2014/15 - a 0.1 per cent drop. However, they also showed that as of the end of March, 1.6 million hectares of land were still designated as green belt - around 13 per cent of English land.

The figures showed 11 local authorities adopted plans that resulted in a decrease in green belt land between 2013/14 and 2014/15. They include Newcastle City Council, which removed 410 hectares of land from its green belt, a drop of nine per cent. Christchurch and Rushcliffe also removed six and four per cent of their green belts respectively.

The government said the 0.1 per cent decrease in green belt was the largest annual change reported in the last five years. However, Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at countryside lobby group Campaign to Protect Rural England, said as far as the records go there hasn't been a bigger release of green belt in a calendar year since 1997. He added that more councils could look to update their green belt boundaries. "Based on the work we did in March, we've seen 11 local authorities so far change their green belt," he said. "We can see at least 33 more coming forward."

He said there is a "fundamental tension" in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) between boosting housing land supply and safeguarding green belt. "What the government never made clear is whether the need for housing should override green belt protection in local plans," he said.

Miner said the NPPF requires that green belt boundaries should only be reconsidered in exceptional circumstances through local plan reviews. "It's left open as to whether boundaries should be reviewed every time a local plan is reviewed," he said. He added that the NPPF says green belt boundaries should be permanent. "We will only get the full benefits if boundary reviews don't happen every time a plan is reviewed," he said.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Manns, director of planning at consultancy Colliers International, who wrote a report on the green belt for the London Society last year, said boundaries had been "reviewed in exactly the manner the government wants the green belt to reviewed, through the local plan process". He added that more councils could update green belt boundaries in the medium term.

Manns said: "The increased release is most likely due to the wider political context: the NPPF has been in place since 2012 and local plan reviews have been upped accordingly, with a distinct pressure on councils to have them done by 2017."

Paul Cheshire, emeritus professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics and co-author of report The Green Belt: A Place for Londoners? published earlier this year, said the green belt is "significantly bigger than it was in 1997". He added: "Since we've got the most monstrous pressure for development and houses are more unaffordable than they have been in recorded history, it's not surprising that some little revisions are going on. It is just not nearly enough to really make much of a dent in the problem."

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: "The green belt is 32,000 hectares bigger than it was in 1997, taking into account land reclassified as national park, and these changes represent 0.1 per cent of the green belt. Only in very special circumstances can building on the green belt be justified, and we have put in place strong protections to prevent inappropriate development in the countryside through the NPPF."

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