Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from John Baker

Summary

The NPPF provides the opportunity to look at green belt policy as part of the overall suite of national planning policy, probably a unique opportunity.

Green belt policy does not fit with the aim of preparing a clear, consistent, understandable and predictable planning policy which will deliver on the Government’s objectives.

Green belt policy is inconsistent with the concept of sustainability and directly contrary to the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

The presence of green belt means that choices are not made in development plans in a way which will lead to the most sustainable patterns of development.

Where it exists, green belt is used as a super development control policy for purposes for which it was never intended, and with deeply unfair consequences.

There is no need for an alternative to green belt policy—we have a plan led system to determine the scale, location and form of development to be provided, to enable proposals to be determined, and to provide protection to environmental assets.

Were there no green belt a positive approach could be taken to managing the urban fringe as an accessible and invaluable resource.

There is no coherent and persuasive argument for having green belt policy, notwithstanding its apparent popularity, and this opportunity should be taken to remove it.

The Select Committee is a vital chance to have an intelligent and objective look at green belt policy, something that never otherwise happens.

1. Introduction

1.1 The Select Committee is seeking views on the Draft NPPF. These comments are on the inclusion of policy on green belt in the Draft NPPF, and hence the persistence of green belt itself. This response may not appear to fit precisely with the Select Committee’s questions, though it is noted that the Select Committee may “return to specific areas of planning policy in later inquiries”. The last of the questions the Select Committee intends to address, is about whether the policies in the Draft NPPF are “sufficiently evidence-based”. I am entirely clear that green belts are not evidence-based and that there is no evidence justifying the persistence of green belt policy.

1.2 The Draft NPPF is essentially the distillation of existing and long-tested planning policy, keeping what needs to be in place at the national level without the repetition and the conflict amongst policies that exists, and stripping out the guidance that is currently embedded and entwined with policy. It seeks to establish comprehensive and topical policy which will all date from the same point, the first occasion this will be the case since the original creation of the planning system. Whilst virtually all of the policy within the document is not new therefore, the Draft NPPF has taken the opportunity to think what is actually needed at the national level for a modern planning system to work. This opportunity should be taken to remove green belt policy from the NPPF as it conflicts directly with the rest of the NPPF and it has no place within a modern spatial planning system.

1.3 This submission looks at:

What the green belt is:

The relationship between the operation of green belt policy and the presumption in favour of sustainable development introduced by the Draft NPPF.

The conflict between green belt and the delivery of more sustainable patterns of development.

How green belt works to undermine the preparation of good development plans.

The way green belt policy is used in the control of development rather than as a spatial planning implementation tool.

The so called “popularity” of green belt that is usually presented as the reason not to question the perpetuation of the national policy.

Why there is no need for an alternative were green belt to be removed, as a fuller and better planning system would already be in place already.

2. What it is

2.1 Green belt was conceived in the 30s and put in place from the 50s onwards as a reaction to development “sprawling” outwards from the principal urban areas, as people wishing to “get away from the city” and to live some notion of a rural existence took advantage of public transport services making commuting from the suburbs a realistic possibility. The rise of car ownership and the spread of strip development along arterial routes reinforced the concern that something had to be done to prevent towns being joined by a continuous strip of development. It is interesting to reflect on how dated the concern about linear development sounds now—linear development providing high loading for mass transit services has considerable merit for instance—but the anachronistic nature of green belt policy is far greater when it is considered alongside the role of development plans.

2.2 The highest explanation or justification of green belt policy is that it is a strategic policy for shaping places. This may have been in the mind of some of its creators, but it does not work well this way, and certainly not in a way consistent with other objectives for the way that development should take place.

2.3 Green belts are already in place, as extensive and often very arbitrarily defined areas around and between urban areas. Incidentally the Draft NPPF strongly discourages the creation of new areas of green belt, as the current policy in PPG2 Green belts does. This in itself is rather telling.

2.4 Because green belts are in place, green belt policy is not a dynamic tool planners have for use to implement choices about the shape of places made through the proper participative plan making. Instead green belt predetermines those choices. Any choice or decision relating to land with a green belt designation has to be a battle with the established position, and green belt is only changed through resolute action by the committed and intelligent use of planning policy, usually by challenges to the planning authority.

2.5 The mythology of green belt and the unquestioning adherence to its effect is one of the most disturbing aspects of the policy and of planning practice as a whole.

3. The Perpetuation of Two Planning Systems

3.1 Decision makers are obliged to follow a very different reasoning process in green belt than they do anywhere else. This contradiction will be significantly emphasised if what is currently proposed by the Draft NPPF becomes national planning policy.

3.2 It is to be noted that green belt has only ever been expressed as a policy. There is no mention of green belt in legislation. This is remarkable given the power green belt has and how the presence of green belt entirely subverts rational decision processes.

3.3 Green belt policy reverses the reasoning process for decision making, shifting the onus from the decision maker to the applicant to demonstrate the rightness of their position.

3.4 The 1947 Planning Act effectively withdrew certain rights owners had over the use of land in certain circumstances and in the public interest, though the legal starting point remained a presumption in favour of development. This was expressed in Circular 14/85 along the lines that planning authorities should grant planning permission unless there was demonstrable harm to planning matters of acknowledged importance. In the continued evolution of these deliberations and with the 1991 changes to the 1990 Act, the starting point in decision making became what the development plan says, or in effect, a presumption in favour of the development plan.

3.5 The headline statement of the Draft NPPF, and the only “new” part of the policy essentially, is that where the plan is “absent, silent or not up to date”, CHECK there is a presumption in favor of sustainable development. In effect there is not a development plan to provide a clear direction, then national planning policy is the basis for determining an application. To planning inspectors, national planning policy has always been the most significant “other material consideration”.

3.6 The more graphic version of the presumption, as the Draft NPPF puts it, is that the default answer in dealing with planning applications should be “yes”.

3.7 In areas of green belt the starting point and the default position is most definitely “no”. Some logic could be attributed to this if green belt was synonymous with sustainable development. However having a green belt is not the way to deliver sustainable development, indeed it operates entirely contrary to the promotion of sustainable patterns of development, as explored below. A presumption in favour of sustainable development that defers to a policy that does not deliver sustainable development is a very odd concept indeed.

3.8 I should not proceed without noting the critical point in the Government’s position expressed through the Draft NPPF, that local planning authorities should put development plans in place as soon as possible. The progress in doing so to date since the introduction of LDFs in 2004 and the refresh in 2008 remains very disappointing. The Localism Bill is not proposing any change to LDFs except perhaps for the adoption of the generic term, Local Plan. The creation of the presumption is primarily the addition of a further motivation for make plans, adding the “stick” where the “carrot” hasn’t been sufficient, though given the resistance to making the necessary difficult decisions that characterises many of the areas without current development plans, it remains to be seen how effective this measure will be.

3.9 The Draft NPPF should not be proceeding on the basis of a national policy which encompasses two opposing decision processes applying in different parts of the country. At very least this situation needs to be thoroughly examined before it is perpetuated, and there should be very good reasons shown to justify enshrining the approach. My submission is that there are no such reasons and by reference to the Select Committee’s question, there is no evidence justifying the retention of green belt policy.

4. Green Belt and Sustainable Development

4.1 Green belt policy conflicts with the concept of sustainability and the achievement of sustainable development. The common understanding of green belt policy—and the reason for its popularity amongst the settled community—is that its purpose is to stop development, and indeed it is used in this way. The idea that at some arbitrary point in the evolution of a town or city, it has reached its “correct” or optimum size and its further growth should be stopped, is clearly wrong, yet this is what designating a green belt round an urban area effectively does, and certainly what some would wish it to do. Places have to change and adapt with new needs to be met, and as new technologies and standards emerge as they have always done.

4.2 Definitions of sustainable development vary, but always include the concept of inter-generational equity, of people in the future being able to meet their own needs with access to adequate resources. How then can we now adopt a policy that seeks to say that there can be no change in the place which future people will inhabit? Saying that there can be no change in the shape of an urban area and hence no ability to accommodate development that cannot be satisfactorily accommodated within the existing boundaries of the urban area is the current generation seeking to deny future generations the means to determine how its development needs will be met. It also severely interferes with the basic freedom that people in a decent and democratic country should have to move from one part the country to another if they wish to.

4.3 Any role green belt has in shaping places is by default rather than through the positive use of green belt as a place making tool, as already noted. How this works is dealt with below in discussing development plans.

4.4 Because green belt has been drawn “a few miles wide” around urban areas, according to the 1955 guidance on creating green belts, development has been pushed out by the operation of green belt policy to locations beyond the green belt and to outlying smaller settlements. This has created high levels of longer commuting trips and a high level of car dependency, entirely at odds with the achievement of greater sustainability.

4.5 The process of selecting locations for development where green belt exists is not one that is consistent with seeking the most sustainable development sites. This should be a process that integrates social, economic and environmental considerations, and as a comprehensive approach to a place over the long term through the creation of a plan.

5. Green Belt and Development Plans

5.1 We have a plan-led planning system since the 1991 amendment to the 1990 Act. This began as a plan-led development control system effectively, but the introduction of LDFs in the 2004 Act and the emphasis on spatial planning at the local level has provided for the development plan to genuinely determine the scale, location and form of development.

5.2 Once land within the urban area is well used with a mix of uses achieved to promote high levels of accessibility, including access to useable open space, the most sustainable location for development will generally be on the edge of the larger settlements, again with the opportunity to maintain and enhance levels of accessibility, always having regard to the need to protect environmental assets. These are precisely the locations designated as green belt at many of the main cities and towns, though environmental quality is expressly precluded as a consideration in designating or reviewing green belt.

5.3 The development plan should make provision for the required development through strategic allocations and criteria policies, and be informed by the evidence of the Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment which has the role of identifying suitable and available land for development.

5.4 SHLAAs and development plans frequently follow a process for the identification of land which starts with the view—usually politically determined and not technically correct—that green belt is sacrosanct and should not be included in the consideration. This distorts the process and the results, and places green belt above such matters as flood risk, natural value, or agricultural land quality, as well as accessibility.

5.5 The existence of green belt with an entirely different test for any decision dramatically distorts the consideration of locational choices and interferes with rational and open decision making over development proposals.

5.6 The potential influence of green belt in determining the location of strategic development can be illustrated by looking at Chelmsford in Essex. London has a green belt, which is drawn “some miles” around its edge. On the north east side of London this means that the rather arbitrarily drawn outer edge of the green belt cuts across Chelmsford so that the south of the town is in the green belt but the north of the town is not. This distinction has nothing to do with any characteristic of Chelmsford, but arises entirely from Chelmsford’s location in the path of the green belt designation as it spread outwards from London’s edge, to a line reflecting (perhaps) some notion of the distance people were likely to be prepared to travel from their homes into London. Even if ever relevant this distance will have changed since the time of green belt designation.

5.7 In any spatial strategy the level of development at Chelmsford in the future should be determined according to its role, and the location of any development beyond the existing edge of the town should be determined by a process that integrates all relevant accessibility and environmental considerations. With green belt in place, this rational process is less likely to be applied, and in such situations the first choice for development is likely to be anywhere that avoids changing the green belt.

5.8 Notwithstanding statements about their permanence, existing policy clearly provides for green belt to be changed if necessary, through development plans. The interesting issue now is that this has always been a two stage exercise, with the strategic plan dealing with the general extent of green belt and local plan defining boundaries. This in itself has created confusion in some cases and at certain times over whether land is within green belt or not. With no strategic plan following the proposed abolition of Regional Strategy, local plans will have both roles in changing green belts, which at least will be clearer by avoiding the time gap. It is not dealt with in the Draft NPPF, but presumably neighbourhood plans are to have no role in determining green belts since they are to be in conformity with “strategic policies” in local plans.

5.9 It is a further unfortunate feature of the NPPF that it revives the very odd concept of “safeguarded land”. That is, the policy says that plans for areas incumbent with green belt should be prepared on the basis that it will not become necessary to change the green belt boundary at the end of the plan period. Land should be taken out of green belt that is not needed for development and be identified as safeguarded land, with policies making it clear that the land is not intended for development in the immediate future or in this plan period.

5.10 This approach has been quietly ignored by planning authorities and inspectors alike in recent years, most notably by the panels reporting on Regional Strategies, and with good reason. To require observance of this policy requirement will be another huge setback to positive planning.

5.11 Safeguarded land is perceived very differently by all parties. To the planning authority it becomes “development in waiting”, notwithstanding the expectation that the location for development when it is needed will be identified according to circumstances at the time, because using safeguarded land will lead to less resistance than taking other land from the green belt. To developers it is an invitation to submit an application, because, they will say, “the principle of development has been accepted”. To the opponents of development, safeguarded land is indistinguishable from allocated land. Only something as irrational as green belt policy would spawn such a confusing situation.

5.12 The practicality for plan making is the worst consequence of the requirement for safeguarded land. Without there being any better definition and no expectation of guidance other than from the precedent of Inspector’s decisions, a simple interpretation of the time period that a plan with green belt has to address in identifying safeguarded land is at least two plan periods, or around 30–40 years according to what is said of the time horizon of plans. There are difficulties in looking to development requirements for one plan period and the controversy over making provision for development is the main reason planning authorities won’t make plans and the most controversial issue when they do. The idea of trying to quantify the land requirement for two plan period is daunting and it be safely assumed that this requirement alone will effectively stop local plans ever being adopted in locations where green belt exists.

6. Green Belt and Development Management

6.1 Once in place, green belt policy is used in ways that have nothing to do with its original purpose. It becomes a super development control policy that provides a very strong basis for saying no to development proposals.

6.2 This use of green belts in the development control or development management process is wrong for the reasons already introduced:

The decision process will be different in different locations—at the extreme, either side of the line defining the green belt (a field boundary perhaps)—for reasons that have nothing to do with the characteristics of the place.

Decisions about the merits of development do not take into account all of the factors they should. As with consideration of the presumption in favour of sustainable development above, this could be acceptable if green belt was an amalgam of or a short curt to all of the factors that should apply in the consideration of a proposal, but it is categorically not that.

6.3 Green belt is remarkably perverse in its operation. Types of development are defined in policy (PPG2 currently) as “not inappropriate”, where everything else is therefore deemed to be “inappropriate”, and if inappropriate, the policy says that there is automatically harm to the green belt, precluding the grant of planning permission. This process skips the reasonable question of whether the development would actually affect the openness of the land, the reason for having green belt in the first place, or whether there would be significant conflict with any of the five green belt purposes. The decision is pre-determined by a policy that takes no account of the nature of the development or its impacts or merits. There is something disturbingly Kafkaesque about this policy loop which is exceedingly difficult to break into.

7. Green Belt Purposes

7.1 The Draft NPPF reiterates the five purposes for including land in green belt that are in PPG2, without any consideration of the merit or meaning of these. These become the “criteria” for examining whether any change can be made through a plan to either the general extent of the green belt, or the detailed definition of the boundary, if “exceptional circumstances” exist. These purposes are in large part garbled and meaningless, which unfortunately seems to allow for their use to justify almost any interpretation as long as it is negative.

Purpose 1—“To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built up areas”

7.2 This purpose can be commented upon as follows:

As stated, it only applies to large build up areas, so that green belt around small settlements is not serving this purpose.

What is sprawl?—is sprawl something different from development, and does good development which meets current ideas of good practice, through achieving high density, good design and a mix of uses for instance, constitute sprawl?

Why is the purpose stated in terms of “check the unrestricted sprawl” rather than for instance to restrict or to prevent sprawl, and what is the difference between sprawl and unrestricted sprawl?

In a plan-led system, it is the plan that determines where development goes, which is surely different from unrestricted sprawl

Other planning policies can be used specifically to prevent development in particular locations, and there are plenty of others concerned with the environmental services that land provides that do so indirectly.

Purpose 2—“To prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another”

7.3 This purpose can be commented upon as follows:

It only applies to neighbouring towns and hence not to the possibility that the outward growth of a town would embrace a village, so that green belt around towns with smaller settlements beyond the town edge and in the green belt is not serving this purpose.

Why do this?—is the concern with the identify of the towns, in which case it may not be the creation of an expanse of “no persons land” that characterises the identity of the places, and there will be plenty of other factors that are important.

How is this an aim to be related to the desirability of achieving more sustainable patterns of development (which implies bigger, more compact areas supporting better facilities and services, and the forms of development which are conducive to the provision of public transport services—such as dumbbells).

Purpose 3—“To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment”

7.4 This purpose can be commented upon as follows:

Green belt is only to “assist” this aim.

Plenty of other planning policies are in common use that achieve the same end directly or indirectly.

Purpose 4—“Preserve the setting and special character of historic towns”

7.5 This purpose can be commented upon as follows:

It is only acceptable where the relationship between the edge of the town and the landscape around it is an important part of the character of a town which qualifies as “historic”.

Purpose 5—“To assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land”

7.6 This purpose can be commented upon as follows:

There is no clear evidence that green belt policy (as opposed to a generally restrictive approach towards development in open countryside) does assist in bringing about urban regeneration. Market demand is a prerequisite that green belt does not create, and it is just as likely that investment and development unable to have the site that it wants will go to another town, region or country rather than take a site on previously used land in the same town.

There are many other means in the planning system of achieving the same channelling of development (this is the main purpose of spatial planning after all) that are more direct and positive than trying to do so indirectly by seeking to cut off the supply of other land for an indefinite but demonstrably not infinite period.

7.7 Picking up the last and most recently added purpose, the role of green belt and regeneration is a self perpetuating myth which needs to be challenged. Looking to the Select Committees remit and the need for policies to be evidence-based, where is the evidence on regeneration that justifies this policy? No evidence was presented to justify the addition of this purpose in 1985.

7.8 The significant rise in the redevelopment of urban land that we have seen does not date from the designation of green belt but took place in the 90s onwards, driven by such as lifestyle choices and travel costs. More specifically in planning terms it has been driven by the availability of financial support from such as the RDAs, and by planning policies with such as PPS3 Housing and PPS6 Planning for Town Centres, as was, now PPS4 Planning for Sustainable Economic Growth. The most important change may well be the requirement for planning authorities to act on information rather than assertion, so that for instance it became a requirement to assess the potential for development to come forward within urban areas and for this to influence the location of development.

7.9 The myth of the role of green belt in bringing about regeneration can be easily exposed by a simple example. The three cities of Nottingham, Derby and Leicester are all in the East Midlands and are all exposed to a broadly similar economic environment. They are all different in terms of green belt. Nottingham is surrounded by green belt, there is green belt on the east side of Derby but not on the west, and there is no green belt at Leicester. It is not apparent that the economic performance of these cities has differed significantly or the level of regeneration varied dramatically as a consequence of these different green belt situations.

8. Popularity

8.1 The so called “popularity” of green belt is often presented as the reason to not question the perpetuation of the policy in principle, but the Select Committee needs to be bolder in its examination of Draft NPPF and the policy it carries forward.

8.2 Green belt may be “known” to many people, but understood by rather less. Virtually no commentary on planning distinguishes areas that are designated green belt from land that is simply “green” by virtue of being undeveloped. The current debate raging in the media is a case in point.

8.3 The green belt is generally believed to be somewhere where development can never take place and this view is the basis of its popularity. Green belt has a seductive appeal to communities that want to see nothing change, and politicians who want to please the most vociferous communities are well aware that green belt appears to promise that nothing will ever change, and that no other people will ever appear.

8.4 The reaction to any suggestion of removing green belt is that this would “open the development floodgates”. This is not the case of course, and this view represents a failure to understand the role of green belt as a policy tool. A better job of determining where development is to go would simply be done another, far better, way.

8.5 Governments have never been prepared to inject clarity or intelligence into green belt policy through redrafting—if that were possible—and certainly not to do away with it.

8.6 It is ironic that there has been such an orchestrated outcry about the NPPF from organisations representing the no-change community. The Government has sought with the NPPF to make planning more accessible. George Osborne said in The House of Commons on 7 September, “we have got to simplify the planning system that is completely unintelligible to most citizens and that is what we have done”. The Government has evidently achieved its objective of making planning policy more accessible, in that some people have read the Draft NPPF and found amongst other things that development plans are just that, plans for how development requirements are to be met, and that green belt is something that changes through development plans to make provision for development.

8.7 Uninformed popularity is not a reason to maintain something that is so at odds with what we need from evidence-based planning policy and is clearly at odds with a rational basis for decision making.

9. Alternative to Green Belt

9.1 It is often said that if green belt were removed an alternative would have to be found. To do what? With a system of development plans that have the sophisticated roles they now have and which provide for both development and protection, there is no need for crude blanket restrictive policies. There is no need for an alternative to green belt when simply removing it would leave a far better planning system more able to do its job—if only planning authorities were to take the opportunity it presents.

9.2 Removing the overwhelmingly negative policy of green belt would enable fresh thinking about the urban fringe to shine through. The urban fringe is a great resource, the nearest open area to the large numbers of people in urban areas but accessible to people from rural areas too. In addition to vital roles for leisure and exercise, the urban fringe should increasingly be seen as and managed for the potential this close ring around the town has as a source of locally produced and community managed food and energy production. It may be said that nothing about green belt prevents this, but the green belt inflicts is a mind set diametrically opposed to this way of thinking, and so these opportunities are never taken.

10. Conclusions

10.1 Green belt policy is an unfortunate and anachronistic hangover from a long time ago when planning was a simplistic development control function. Its persistence inhibits the preparation and proper use of positive spatial planning as the means of achieving more sustainable patterns of development.

10.2 It is entirely clear that no government would create green belt policy if it didn’t exist. This government has a better opportunity than has ever existed with the rewriting of national planning policy effectively from scratch to remove green belt as a policy and to end the designation of around 13% of England as green belt. The Select Committee should press the Government to do just this.

9 September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011