A government initiative to remove protections on one part of the UK’s green belt in return for creating a new area of protected land elsewhere is expected to be given the go ahead next month.
The move is expected to be publicly backed by ministers in a White Paper in December and is seen as a significant change in planning policy as the government struggles to meet its target to build a million homes by 2020.
It will consign to history the idea that all green belt land is of equal value and will open up planning which experts say is needed to help meet new home targets.
According to land brokers Aston Mead it will be a step in the right direction and recognise that whilst some of it is highly desirable and should be protected at all costs, much of it could be built upon without any real loss to the environment.
Aston Mead land and planning director Charles Hesse said: “If this means another important but currently unprotected piece of land receives a level of protection it didn’t previously have, that can only be a good thing. Ultimately, it’s a sensitive way of protecting rural land, while giving councils the powers to reach their ambitious planning targets.”
Communities and local government secretary Sajid Javid is said to be ready to encourage councils to allow more housing developments of green belt land, provided that the local plans are sensible and robust and that the total amount of protected land does not fall.
In a speech in Westminster Javid said that politicians should not to stand in the way of councils who propose green belt developments if all the options have been considered and added that he would back councils who have sensible and robust plans.
He gave as an example Birmingham City Council which has put forward a plan to meet some of its local housing need by removing green belt designation from a small area of land. “They’ve looked at all the options. They’ve considered all the implications. They want to build homes for their children and grandchildren and Westminster politicians should not stand in the way of that,” Javid said.
However the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) is concerned about such a move. Paul Miner, planning campaign manager, suggested that it could be charter for developers and encourage local authorities to release large swathes of green belt with little justification.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. It’s generally found that the green belt is performing an important function in stopping urban sprawl,” he added.
The CPRE backs measures to promote brown field development and is in favour of rules to rein in land banking and incentivise quicker building once planning permission has been granted. It wants new policies and funding measures to get brown field sites developed ahead of green field sites.
However, Hesse believes that the demand for housing has grown so severe in parts of the country that it should count as an exceptional circumstance, giving local councils more freedom to carry out what they want to do.
He explained: “In fact, there are already rules that allow local authorities to do this, but they are rarely used because of disagreements over how green belt land is defined.”
The first green belts were introduced in the 1950s to protect undeveloped land from urban sprawl. There are 14 such areas around towns and cities in England, covering about 13% of the country.
Hesse pointed out that there needs to be safeguards in place to ensure that these ‘swaps’ are not carried out in a token manner. He believes that any new area of land which is designated green belt needs genuinely to be of environmental, historic or ecological importance.
“If it’s not carefully selected and is something which could in fact be perfectly good building land, then we will simply be back where we started. Nevertheless, outright opposition to all building on green belt land is no longer tenable and it’s good to see that ministers are at long last waking up to this fact,” he added.