How councils have won support for green belt land releases

The need to prove a five-year housing land supply is forcing councils to de-designate green belt land. Matt Ross finds out how two planning teams have responded.

Trueick: advises realistic stance on site release
Trueick: advises realistic stance on site release

One of the biggest divides in the Conservative Party lies between rural, traditionally minded members - conservatives in every sense of the word - and its more libertarian, business-minded wing. But, while the close alliance between shire Tory David Cameron and growth-focused George Osborne helps explain the party's recent success, it has also led to some seemingly contradictory policy positions.

For example, the party's 2015 election manifesto said four times that it would "protect the green belt". Yet under the National Planning Policy Framework, councils must maintain a five-year supply of housing land sufficient to meet projected needs and may, in "exceptional circumstances", use the local plan-making process to de-designate green belt sites to allow residential development.

In some cases, this can force councils into de-designations - if they can't point to a five-year land supply, their local plan is deemed invalid and they are vulnerable to planning appeals from developers, particularly on sites outside the green belt. One council approached by Planning complained that officers and members reluctantly battled local people to build on the green belt so as to prevent appeals on less sustainable sites outside it. Unsurprisingly, the council declined an interview.

Other councils, however, welcome the chance to assess different sites' sustainability on their own merits, considering wider issues such as transport and ecological value alongside the desire to concentrate development in urban areas. Whether eager or reluctant, they use the local plan system to allow residential development in the green belt.

New figures from the Department of Communities and Local Government show that, in 2014/15, 11 English councils adopted plans de-designating a total of 2,000 hectares - the largest change in five years. Officers in two councils tell Planning why they picked awkward fights - and how they won.

CASE STUDY 1

Taking a proactive approach

Christchurch Borough and East Dorset District Councils share a single local plan and are responsible for large swathes of Bournemouth's green belt. And this is just the start of the constraints on development, explains Simon Trueick, the partnership planning policy manager for both councils.

The borough includes internationally protected heathland, with a 400-metre exclusion area where no development is permitted. It also contains significant areas likely to be exposed to future flood risk, according to climate change projections. East Dorset, meanwhile, features areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Trueick says there is concern in both boroughs "that in-fill development is changing the character of our urban areas". Having carried out a strategic housing market assessment, officers concluded that "we had no realistic chance of reaching those figures in our existing housing areas", he adds. This meant that both councils had to plan for development outside urban areas and release green belt, he says.

The council brought in consultancy Broadway Malyan to assess the possible sites, identifying two in Christchurch and 12 in East Dorset. Each site was then masterplanned, yielding land for 3,465 of the 8,490 homes that the councils together require over the next 15 years.

In Christchurch, a 950-home plot has proved relatively uncontentious: lying between the railway line and the A35, it will house an urban extension. "But other sites have been very unpopular," says Trueick. He adds that in East Dorset, some councillors "have found it difficult to toe the line, so it's been a tough ride".

Nonetheless, both councils approved the plans. So what won them over? "The main political drivers have been around affordable housing and delivering infrastructure," he replies. "The majority of our development is very small sites that don't enable better infrastructure, but these developments will be making significant contributions to roads, green spaces and schools." The inspector who examined the local plan agreed that the councils' lack of alternative sites met the definition of "exceptional circumstances" and made only one amendment - to include an additional site proposed by a developer. All the de-designations were approved, including 160 hectares of housing and two employment sites.

Maintaining a consistent position and gathering the evidence helped the council win through, says Trueick. "You've got to be honest with yourself about the availability of housing land. The authorities that tend to come unstuck are those that make some statement that they won't touch the green belt and then get into difficulties finding land. We were very clear from the outset that our urban areas weren't sufficient to meet our housing needs."

Crucially, he explains that Broadway Malyan's work demonstrated that the councils had gone through a process of justifying the sites they wanted to promote and ruled out alternatives. "That helped at examination," he says. "We'd found the most sustainable sites, so it was more difficult for developers to suggest others."

He advises other councils "to seize the initiative. Take control, masterplan it, drive the difficult decisions yourselves instead of trying to shy away from touching the green belt and then having sites forced on you". With most of the green belt sites they identified now moving through the process, they can ramp up affordable housing provision, he concludes.

CASE STUDY 2

Winning the community round

Covering Bath, its surrounds and land towards Bristol, two-thirds of Bath and North East Somerset Council's area is green belt. All the same, the first iteration of the council's now adopted core strategy to 2026, later abandoned, sited all 11,000 planned homes outside this, explains Simon de Beer, the planning team's policy and environment manager. The strategy's inspection was put on hold after the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework, which ultimately required a revised strategy with a strategic housing market assessment that pushed targets up to about 13,000.

In its preparation of the revised strategy, the council undertook a spatial review, finding that the most sustainable locations were in the A4 corridor through the green belt, linking Bath and Bristol. It had found space for additional homes on brownfield sites, but that still left a gap of 1,500 homes to plug if it was to meet its 13,000 target. Meanwhile, lacking a local plan, the council also spent a lot of time fighting appeals. "We had to grant permissions that we weren't happy with," says de Beer. Developers were making "predatory" applications in small towns and villages, he says, and the council faced an "onslaught of appeals". However, this "helped members to understand that we couldn't sustain our position without an adopted core strategy", he says.

De Beer calls the decision to plan development in the A4 corridor a brave one. "You couldn't find a more sensitive area," he says, pointing to Bath's status as a World Heritage Site in the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty. The corridor's public transport links meant that development would be more sustainable there than on sites on the outskirts of Bath, he adds.

The council identified five sites, including one for a 300-home scheme near Bath, two sites totalling 450 homes at Keynsham, and a 150-unit plot near Bristol, while other village and brownfield sites took the remainder. Then the council involved communities in shaping the environmental safeguards, infrastructure requirements and masterplans. Consultation was vital in shifting local views, says de Beer, as was local people's awareness of the aggressive appeals: "They understood the council had limited control of development."

Four of the five sites were approved, recalls de Beer: "We convinced the inspector that the test for exceptional circumstances had been met. We'd looked at all the alternatives and they didn't stand up as robustly. The sites outside the green belt were peripheral, would lead to more car traffic and weren't as sustainable."

The plan was adopted last year, and the council is now working with local people and developers on masterplans. Releasing green belt land for development, says de Beer, rests on making sure you've got the evidence-based justification to support those sites. It's very important to work with local communities, he says. If developers are slow in bringing sites forward, then the council may again be vulnerable to planning appeals, he adds. But for now, the flood of speculative applications and appeals has stopped: "It's made a huge difference on appeals," says de Beer. "Now we're in a much stronger position to resist them."

A session on using the green belt sustainably for housing is on the agenda of Planning for Housing - Northern Edition in Manchester on 10 February. For more details, please visit www.planningresource.co.uk/planningforhousingnorth


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