How we did it: Planning 7,000 homes in the green belt

How Coventry City Council won support for potentially controversial allocations. By Mark Wilding.

Andrews (right) and Millar: collaborated on design guidance intended to ensure the green belt extensions fitted the city’s character
Andrews (right) and Millar: collaborated on design guidance intended to ensure the green belt extensions fitted the city’s character

Project: Coventry local plan, including the allocation of green belt sites for 7,000 homes

Organisations involved: LUC, Coventry City Council

In 2010, Coventry City Council was on the verge of adopting a local plan. Then the coalition government came to power, regional strategies were scrapped and, with no top-down targets to adhere to, the council decided to have a rethink. Local plan work in Coventry began afresh. Mark Andrews, planning and housing policy manager at the council, says: "Localism came in and was all about giving local authorities control. It took everyone a little while to really get to grips with that change."

No-one suspected at the time that it would be another seven years before the city council would adopt its plan. A major housing shortfall in the city necessitated an extension of the city’s footprint – and the release of land from the green belt for the first time in 50 years. The process involved difficult discussions with residents, members and neighbouring authorities to agree how to take such radical action. Nevertheless, in December 2017, the council successfully adopted a plan designed to meet the city’s housing need until 2031.

The council’s post-2010 election embrace of localism had led to submission of a local plan which included a target of 12,000 homes over 20 years – less than half the figure previously proposed. But the plan was rejected at examination in 2013. An inspector told the authority that more work was required – particularly if it was to fulfil its duty to cooperate with neighbours.

Work began on a joint evidence base that would inform local plans across the Coventry and Warwickshire sub-region. That revealed a problem. "We had 17,000 homes worth of land supply but need in excess of 42,000," says Andrews. "There was a huge gap." The city needed to make some tough decisions about where it could locate new homes. Andrews says: "We recognised that our neighbours were only going to entertain taking growth from us if they were comfortable and confident that we had maximised what we could deliver."

Officers weighed up their options. "We knew we couldn’t just say we had reached capacity because we wouldn’t have got through examination," says Andrews. "We had to look at whether we could grow our city." That meant encroaching upon the green belt to find sites for around 7,000 homes. Such plans are almost always controversial, but represented a particularly bold move in Coventry. "The city hasn’t grown outwards significantly for the best part of half a century," says Andrews. "Thinking about green belt release on the scale we had to was a big deal."

Identifying green belt sites for development involved a process of elimination. Officers ruled out sites due to flood risk or designation as sites of special scientific interest or nature reserves.

"We worked around protecting our highest quality spaces, then looked at where that left us," says Andrews. The council identified potential for a series of green belt site allocations, including two urban extensions, to the north and west of the city, which between them they felt could deliver 5,350 homes.

Those results were then fed back to stakeholders. Officers explained to members the importance of preparing a local plan that would pass examination, and the role that the green belt changes could play in this. Training sessions were held on housing need and the green belt. "We had brilliant examples around Coventry, where the green belt was just as likely to be a power plant or airfield as it was to be an ancient woodland," says Andrews.

A key strand of the communications strategy involved explaining the benefits of development and the need for green belt release to the public. Officers needed to show how the planned urban extensions on green belt would reflect the city’s character. Existing design guidance dated from 1995 and was ill-suited to inform large-scale housing development, according to Alex Millar, urban design officer at Coventry City Council. He says: "It was aimed more at individual buildings. We wanted to try and take the essence of the urban design guidance, but apply it across larger housing allocations."

New design guidance was developed which set out the characteristics of individual homes, how buildings should be clustered, and acceptable approaches to highways and landscaping. Early on, developers were invited to be part of the process – which helped avoid problems later on, says Millar.

"When the design guide went out to public consultation we had no push back from the big developers," he says. "Residents and elected members are also happy with what they see."

Andrews expects to see planning applications submitted for Coventry’s urban extensions in the coming months. He is optimistic about the developments that will eventually take shape. "It was the first time in 50 years we’d done urban extensions, and we felt like it was a once in a generation opportunity," he says. "If we were going to do it, we wanted to make sure we did it properly."

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