102.Some developers argue that it will not be possible to meet the Government’s aspiration of delivering one million new homes by the end of the current Parliament unless the restrictions on building on the green belt are relaxed. David Jenkinson from Persimmon Homes argued that the green belt restrictions were the single biggest obstacle to delivering the homes needed. He told us that not being able to use green belt land is restricting the ability to meet an area’s needs:
If you have a look, outside of London, it is not too bad … most of the authorities outside of London, they are planning for 91% of the housing requirement in those districts. Where we have a massive problem is in London and the surrounding London areas. The current output in local planning authorities surrounded by green belt is 29,000 dwellings. They should be producing 89,900. That gives us a shortfall of 913,500 houses by 2031. The most damning stat in all that is that they are only planning for 46% of the housing need.
103.However, other witnesses were not as adamant that the green belt was stifling development. Pete Redfern from Taylor Wimpey, for example, highlighted that “the emotion tends to take over the reality and people talk quite regularly about green belt and brown field, ignoring that there is green field in the middle”, and that more than half of all development has been on brown field land. Mr Redfern also told us that:
I find it frustrating that we, as a country, do not seem to have a rational, sensible conversation about green belt, understand what its original purpose was and work out what its purpose should be today … Green belt has this aura of certainty to it that it does not necessarily deserve.
104.The green belt designation was created to prevent excessive urban sprawl and we believe that it has been successful in this and continues to be so. However, we also recognise that there may be cases when it needs to be reviewed. For example, Tim Hill, Chief Planning Officer at Leeds City Council, told us that in his area the green belt stops before the edge of the city, so that there is land that is further away from the city centre that in policy terms is easier to develop than some more urban land. Mr Hill argued that the green belt does need to be reviewed occasionally, and that in such instances it should be through the local plan process. He also suggested that in areas where green field and green belt land exists it can prove an understandable distraction for developers, who may seek to challenge a local plan’s assessment of a five year land supply to secure land that is more financially attractive: “It distracts our resources because we are forever fighting appeals about five-year land supply against sites that are very attractive for a volume housebuilder in terms of their model but are not helping to deliver the Government’s targets around brownfield delivery”.
105.The NPPF states that green belt boundaries should only be altered in ‘exceptional circumstances’, but does not define what these circumstances might be. The housing White Paper recognises this and proposes that the NPPF be amended to make it clear that green belt boundaries should only be changed when a local authority can demonstrate that it has fully examined all other reasonable options for meeting an area’s development requirements. The White Paper also proposes that where land is removed from the green belt, the impact should be offset with compensatory improvements to the environmental quality or accessibility of the remaining green belt land. In our report on the Department’s consultation on national planning policy, we argued that local authorities should be provided with guidelines on the appropriateness of reviewing the green belt. We welcome the Government’s commitment to protecting the green belt, but are concerned that the proposals in the White Paper effectively weaken the protections in the NPPF, as the ‘exceptional circumstances’ could now include an authority not building enough homes. Any changes to a green belt designation should only be made as part of the wider local plan review process to ensure opportunities for community consultation. While we believe that removing land from the green belt should be a last resort, we reiterate our recommendation from our earlier report: the Government should publish guidance for local authorities, setting clear guidelines on when and how it may be appropriate for a local authority to review its green belt boundary in order to deliver new homes to meet local need.
106.The Government’s programme of public land disposal has not succeeded either in disposing of enough land or making it sufficiently easy for developers to access. The National Audit Office found in July 2016 that DCLG had made progress in setting up its programme to release enough public sector land for 160,000 homes by 2020, but that so far only land with capacity for an estimated 8,580 homes had been disposed of. In order to meet the new target, “departments must now dispose of more land in each of the remaining four years than they achieved in any year of the previous land disposals programme”. The report also found that “The Homes and Communities Agency, responsible for collecting information from government departments, has not yet however obtained sufficient evidence that this additional land will actually be developed for housing”.
107.Ian Piper, Head of Land at the HCA, explained that the findings of the National Audit Office report were one of the drivers for the Accelerated Construction programme (discussed earlier at paragraph 45), which had the aim of delivering 15,000 home starts on public land by the end of the current Parliament. Mr Piper also said that the HCA was now receiving land from all of the big government departments and that subsequent years should see a substantial increase in public land disposal. The Minister was similarly optimistic that the rate of disposal would increase and told us that around 90 per cent of the necessary land had now been identified:
These programmes are always back-loaded … The Government start a scheme; it is slow to get started. You get a heavy delivery right before the end of the programme, at the end of a Parliament. You then stop, and then start again. You always have that problem.
108.The housing White Paper also contains measures to encourage local authorities to dispose of land, including making explicit existing flexibility to dispose of land at less than best financial return. We welcome such measures and encourage local authorities to recognise both the social value that can be delivered by developments and that this can be more beneficial than maximising immediate financial returns.
109.We welcome the Government’s efforts to increase the availability of public land for development. However, it will be important to ensure that land released is in the right places and has the infrastructure needed to create sustainable communities. Richard Blyth from the RTPI shared his concern that “some public land is in appalling locations”. He also explained that:
In response to a recommendation of this Committee in December 2014, we undertook a survey of all the planning permissions that had been granted in three years in 12 city regions. We found that to date the situation is pretty good: 75% within 10 kilometres of a major employment cluster and 13% within walking distance of a railway or metro station; that is the housing units. There is no room for complacency. If we start having every airfield turned into a housing estate, that figure would look much worse.
110.It is also important that, once identified for disposal, land is handed over to developers without delay. We heard of an example of a fire authority taking several years to dispose of land to Daniel Gath Homes, a small building company. The purchase of the land was agreed in 2014, but the contracts had still not been exchanged in November 2016. It is essential that the disposal of public land focusses on delivering land in areas where it is most needed, and that it does so without delay. We would welcome the HCA becoming more active in the acquisition of surplus land and, where appropriate, obtaining planning permission and directly commissioning development. We also support exploring whether incentives for Departments and public bodies (such as the opportunity to maintain a financial stake in the land) would help bring forward more public land.
110 Department for Communities and Local Government, Fixing our broken housing market, , February 2017, paras 1.37–1.39
111 Communities and Local Government Committee, Third Report of Session 2015–16, Department for Communities and Local Government’s consultation on national planning policy, HC703, para 25
112 National Audit Office, Session 2016–17, Disposal of public land for new homes: a progress report, HC510
28 April 2017