What housing need studies could mean for South East green belt

Two new studies on housing need prepared on behalf of groups of Home Counties local authorities highlight the need for green belt land to be released for new homes in parts of the M25 commuter belt, according to experts.

New homes: pressure mounts on Home Counties authorities to review green belt for development potential
New homes: pressure mounts on Home Counties authorities to review green belt for development potential

Two strategic housing market assessments (SHMAs) identifying the scale and mix of housing required by the local populations in both Berkshire and East Hertfordshire-West Essex have been published in recent weeks. Both assessments are being viewed as demonstrating a need for new homes that can only be met through the use of green belt sites.

Consultancy Barton Willmore said the studies indicated that Slough, South Buckinghamshire and Windsor and Maidenhead - which make up the eastern boroughs and districts of the Berkshire housing market area - would face "significant challenges" unless they review their green belts. The consultancy added that the East Hertfordshire and West Essex authorities faced similar pressures, with Epping Forest District Council in particular urged to press on with the second part of a green belt review. More than 90 per cent of the Epping Forest district is designated as green belt.

According to Barton Willmore's analysis, the eastern Berkshire councils' annual housing need assessment was identified as 169 per cent higher than that in the now-defunct South East regional spatial strategy, while Epping's figure was up 194 per cent on the East of England regional plan's.

Michael Knott, planning director at Barton Willmore's Reading office, said the latest SHMAs pointed to significant increases in housing requirements, with these being a particular issue for authorities bounded by the green belt. "There are a cluster of authorities all within the green belt and with nowhere to export housing," he said. "It's very difficult for areas within Surrey, for example. It has to be dealt with in the housing market area." Knott said, even when councils committed in principle to building in the green belt, getting such policies into local plans could be politically toxic, as Guildford Borough Council had found following the publication of its draft local plan last year.

Mike Newton, director at consultancy Boyer, said October 2014 guidance from the Department for Communities and Local Government suggesting that green belt boundaries should only be altered in "exceptional cases" had been seized on by some authorities as an excuse to put reviews on the back burner. "But the choice is not without adverse consequences," he said. "Some authorities may not see the need to carry out a green belt review, but others are conscious that they need to meet affordable housing needs and that if they don't meet their objectively assessed needs there will be a lot of pressure to release sites outside of the green belt."

Despite government threats to intervene if councils fail to get local plans in place by 2017, both Newton and Knott doubted that it would step in where green belt reviews are a core issue. Both also believe that the messages from the Berkshire and East Hertfordshire-West Essex SHMAs reflect the situation in the wider M25 corridor.

Epping Forest District Council told Planning that it had now appointed a consultant to complete the second phase of its green belt study, which it said would be complete by the end of spring next year and be used in conjunction with a separate "capacity analysis" of its ten largest settlements. It said the documents would be included in a draft plan preferred approach consultation earmarked for next summer. A statement from the authority added: "The level of evidence required to support an emerging local plan continues to evolve and Epping Forest District Council is seeking to react as appropriate to the ever-changing landscape."

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