Sunak pledges to protect Green Belt

Apex Green Belt

As the Tory leadership race hots up, Rishi Sunak’s pledge to block development on Green Belt land is provoking mixed reactions…

The Future of Green Belt

As the battle for the Tory party leadership continues, a promise by Rishi Sunak could have a major impact on the planning arena.

The former Chancellor has said that, should he become Prime Minister, he will block house building on Green Belt and that new development should only take place on brownfield sites – with “inner-city densification’’ vital to increasing available housing. This implies that councils appealing to the Planning Inspectorate for Green Belt boundary changes in order to release land for new housing would be automatically rejected.

Green Belt land makes up 12.4% of land in England (according to analysis carried out by the House of Commons library – this has shrunk by 1% since 2006) – and Sunak claims in a tweet that Green Belt land is extremely precious in the UK:

“We’ve seen too many examples of local councils circumventing the views of residents by taking land out of the Green Belt for development, but I will put a stop to it.’’

Instead, he suggests that up to one million homes could be built on brownfield sites – especially in areas such as the West Midlands, Yorkshire, and north-west England,

Henry Hill, writing in the New Statesman, is not impressed by the pledge, saying:

“Thank goodness. After all, the data reveals that Britain’s Green Belt has shrunk by 1 per cent – you read that right, 1 per cent – since 2006. If these trends continue, the entire Green Belt will have been paved over in just 1,000 years. A week is supposed to be a long time in politics; a millennium, apparently, is not.’’

Sunak’s suggestion has not been well received by think tanks, including The Institute for Economic Affairs. Matthew Lesh, head of public policy, said:

“Rishi Sunak’s housing proposals would flush aspiration down the drain. It reveals a serious lack of ambition to reform the country and boost living standards… Planning restrictions significantly push up the cost of living, while making home ownership unattainable, forcing people into lower paying jobs and increasing commute times and pollution.’’

According to leading think tank The Adam Smith Institute, building homes where people want to live and work is:

“Vital if we want to turbo-charge growth and reduce the cost of living”.

However, Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy at CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “Rishi Sunak is right to raise the creeping development of the Green Belt – which is the countryside next door for 30 million people.

“Piece by piece, local authorities are eating into protected countryside, using blunt, numerical targets that fail to deliver the affordable and social housing people need.

“Our countryside is on the front line of the fight against the climate emergency, and it cannot afford to be lost to unnecessary development.

“The latest data show plans for over quarter of a million homes to be built on the Green Belt.

“Such a loss would be an absurd destruction of our natural heritage, particularly when there is space for 1.3 million homes to be built on brownfield land.

“Applications to change Green Belt boundaries in order to release land for housing have soared five-fold since 2013.’’

However, it is our opinion that many of the statements above are one dimensional and simplistic. Many in the planning sector have, for a long time, been calling for a sensible debate in respect to the role and purpose of the Green Belt and the protections afforded to it. It is true to say that not much of the Green Belt is ‘lush, open countryside’, much of it is developed and or derelict. There are opportunities to use such sites efficiently to deliver housing without truly affecting the original principles and purpose of the Green Belt. Arguably, the Green Belt and the policy on development of such land has been hijacked by those that are NIMBY-leaning.

The attitude towards the protection of Green Belt land also fails to consider population growth since the 1940s when the first designations were made. There are some settlements that are utterly constrained by Green Belt around them and there are limited or no brownfield sites within the urban areas to provide for the identified and pressing housing requirements. The result is that this constrains the supply of housing.

We are not the first to say this. However, we fervently believe the housebuilding, planning sectors and government – the public and private sectors – must have a grown-up conversation and agree how Green Belt land should be protected, but also how its boundaries can be amended in places, thus allowing some development and the delivery of vital housing.

The planning industry will be watching this leadership race with great interest…

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