How the London Plan inspectors' push for a green belt review might pan out

Inspectors examining the draft London Plan have called for the mayor to instigate a review of the capital's green belt to meet future housing needs.

London green belt: review recommended by inspectors
London green belt: review recommended by inspectors

Commentators believe it is unlikely that a formal review will take place for political reasons, though London boroughs may instead be given freer rein to revise their own green belt boundaries.

The long-awaited report into mayor Sadiq Khan's draft New London Plan was finally published earlier this month. Inspectors Roisin Barrett, William Fieldhouse and David Smith advised the mayor that the plan was sound subject to their proposed modifications. Khan must now consider the recommendations before submitting his response and a revised plan to the secretary of state for approval.

One of the inspectors' most show-stopping recommendations was a call for the mayor to commit to a green belt review "to at least establish any potential for sustainable development". Such a review should "involve joint working and positive engagement" with local authorities around and outside the administrative boundary, not just the Greater London Authority (GLA) area, they said. The report also found that the draft plan's current blanket opposition to de-designation of green belt sites "is not consistent with national policy", which permits green belt release through local plans in "exceptional circumstances".

"The recommendation for a London-wide review is logical," said Duncan Parr, planning partner at consultancy Rapley’s. "There is increasing recognition that if London, and the rest of the country, is to meet its housing targets then a sustainable approach to development within the green belt is necessary – particularly where brownfield sites within the green belt can be identified."

Mike Kiely, London spokesman and chairman of the Planning Officers Society believes that much designated green belt around London is of questionable quality and could be put to better use amid a housing shortage – while still maintaining a boundary to curb growth of the Greater London conurbation. He welcomed last week’s examination report of the emerging London Plan that sets out development goals for the capital up to 2041, and said, "It’s about time."

But Kiely and others do not think the mayor will accept the inspectors’ recommendations. In a statement following publication of the report, a GLA spokesman said: "The mayor recognises the value of the green belt and Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) for Londoners…and made a commitment in his manifesto to protect them. The London Plan seeks to ensure that any development does not harm this vital natural asset."

Paul Miner, head of strategic planning and devolution at conservation body the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), told Planning: "We support the mayor’s approach that London housing needs should be met within London on disused brownfield land, and it is unlikely that the inspectors’ proposal will be pushed through. It is not justified and I do not see how it could happen."

However, the report noted that London is failing to deliver on its current targets for delivering housing on small sites and said it is "difficult to see how the number of units could be increased without...a review of the green belt". The report recommended more than halving the small sites target from 245,730 homes to 119,250, leading to a 20 per cent reduction in the overall ten-year target from 649,350 to 522,850 – around 52,285 homes per year.

Green belt accounts for 22 per cent of land in the capital – around 314 square kilometres of the total 1,572 square kilometres overseen by the GLA, according to the report. This represents seven per cent of the Metropolitan Green Belt, which stretches across 5,160 square kilometres in the wider South East and covers parts of 68 local authorities and London boroughs.

If the mayor did orchestrate a review, councils in the South East would have to be involved, said Sarah Bevan, programme director for planning at business lobby group London First, though she pointed out that the inspectors were not explicit on whether a review of the wider Metropolitan Green Belt would be necessary. "[Any] green belt review of London is fundamentally and intrinsically linked to the councils’ statutory ‘duty to cooperate’," she said. "You can't look at London in isolation."

As well as the surrounding green belt, London has parcels of designated Metropolitan Open Land within the city, which provides mostly public green space in the form of playing fields, parks and other areas. It is unclear whether these sites would be included in a future review, but if they did it could be "disastrous", said Michael Bach, planning committee chair at the London Forum of Civic and Amenity Societies. "These sites are embedded within London’s urban fabric and surrounded by development, and are essential to provide green open space for Londoners," he said.

In any case, the mayor is expected to oppose the inspectors’ calls for a green belt review and it would be a challenge for central government to step in and force one, Bach added. "Few local authorities want to be seen to be promoting the release of green belt land, so it would be a major test of this government’s stance as to whether or not it does anything to help to push this through."

Housing minister Esther McVey has been adamant that her department will seek to protect the green belt where possible, while the abolition of the regional development agencies in 2012 means no official body other than the GLA has the powers to conduct a cross-boundary South East review, noted Kiely. A ‘carrot and stick’ incentive would be needed to persuade unwilling councils to participate, which the government may not wish to do, he said.

Authorities that are keen to revise their green belt land, both within and without the capital, may be favourable to any wider review led by the mayor, commentators suggest. The London Borough of Enfield, for example, has proposed revisiting some green belt boundaries in its draft local plan to be adopted in 2021. Meanwhile, the London Borough of Croydon is considering releasing green belt release for 5,300 homes to meet a higher housing target in the next review of its local plan.

"Councils outside London’s boundaries are already showing leadership on difficult decisions about balancing growth needs and protected land, including green belt, and they will be looking for a constructive response from the mayor," said Nick Woolfenden, head of policy coordination at local authority umbrella body South East England Councils. A full review at the London Plan level "would be preferable to a piecemeal approach where individual authorities address their portions of green belt land disparately, without a bigger picture," added Duncan Parr.

At the very least, the inspectors’ report may prompt revisions in the London Plan to allow councils to argue their own "exceptional circumstances" for release of green belt land to meet their housing targets, said Adam Kindred, associate director at CBRE. "I would be incredibly surprised if the mayor adopts this recommendation, but national planning policy does allow for green belt review and we may see some tweaks to remind councils they are in charge of their own destiny, while the GLA bangs the drums to show it is not in accordance," he said.

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