One of the most politically contentious acts a local authority can do is to release green belt land for new development. Yet recent figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) show that more councils are doing it than ever before. In 2018/19, 13 local authorities adopted local plans that included a reduction in green belt land – the highest number this decade. It compares to ten councils which did so in 2017/18, eight each in the two years before that, and just three in 2013/14.
Even looking at the figures as a proportion of the total number of plans adopted per year, last year marks a record high (see bar chart, below). Just over 38 per cent of adopted plans included green belt release compared to 30 per cent in 2017/18 and just eight per cent in 2010/11. In addition, the statistics also revealed that the total amount of green belt land lost during 2018/19 was the second-highest loss since records began in 2010/11 (see bar chart, below). Overall, there was a decrease of 3,290 hectares and 5,070 hectares in 2017/18, which was the highest ever in a year.
Rebecca Pullinger, land use campaigns and policy officer at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), is disappointed by the statistics but not surprised. Pullinger points to the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) back in 2012. "At that point, a number of important policies were removed that did things like promoting the re-use of brownfield land and making sure that it is used first," she said. "Then there was the inclusion of the presumption in favour of sustainable development."
Pullinger acknowledges that LPAs are only allowed to remove green belt designation in "exceptional circumstances", but claims that "the bar has been set too low". She also recognises that the NPPF includes policies to promote the use of brownfield land before broaching the green belt. However, she says that the system clearly isn’t working. "If you look at local authorities’ brownfield registers you can see that they have brownfield land that is ready to be developed, but it isn’t."
For Catriona Riddell, the Planning Officers Society's strategic planning specialist, the main reason more land is being taken out of green belt is because England no longer has "effective strategic planning". One of the principle functions of regional strategies and county-wide structure plans was to put in place strict restrictions on most green belt areas but at the same time designate other areas for intensive growth.
"What we’ve got now under the NPPF is pretty much every local authority for themselves, so they’re all doing green belt reviews because they can’t meet their housing needs," said Riddell. "Whatever the government says about the NPPF putting hefty restrictions on green belt, you’ve got local authorities going into examination and the Planning Inspectorate saying that they have to release green belt to meet their needs."
Philip Smith, board director for planning at consultant LUC, agrees that the NPPF allows councils to take the option of removing land from the green belt. "Clearly, it should be a last resort but it is sensible to look at it if you are trying to accommodate growth. "According to the NPPF, green belts are supposed to shaping patterns of sustainable development and if that sustainable development happens to mean going into the green belt it is not a bad thing."
Green belt reviews are not without cost for the councils concerned. Many authorities that go down this road can face formidable political opposition. And it's not just from angry residents as the recent letter from housing minister Esther McVey to Broxtowe Council ahead of the adoption of its local plan illustrates. "You can tell that it is unpopular," said Pullinger. "At the last local elections in May, there were a few administrations that lost their majorities. Green belt was a big part of that."
Looking ahead, Pullinger expects developers to continue to push for green belt release and for authorities drawing up local plans to increasingly consider it as an option when attempting to meet their housing need and to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply. "I think it will continue," she said, citing a recent CPRE report showing "the threat from housing development in published plans has been growing every year".