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Green Belt Protection Bill and Recent Case Law

By David Churchill, partner, Carter Jonas London

The Green Belt Protection Bill, a Private Members’ Bill which aims to restrict councils’ ability to release Green Belt land for development, is currently working its way through Parliament. The Bill also proposes that if such land is used for development purposes, alternative land is designated as Green Belt in its place.

Originally introducing the Bill to the Commons in 2019, its sponsor Sir Christopher said, ‘When we sing about our green and pleasant land, many of us reflect on how much less green and more ugly it would be but for our Green Belt.’ Worryingly, this comment exemplifies an almost universal misunderstanding of the Green Belt: one which has stymied much-needed development for decades.

At the root of this problem is a misunderstanding, among residents but also some politicians too, about what the Green Belt was intended to be and now is.

Green Belts have existed in planning policy since the first Town and Country Planning Act in 1947, as a means of preventing urban sprawl. In principle this is a ring of countryside around a town or city where development is resisted in favour of agriculture, forestry and outdoor leisure. But in reality the Green Belt far from the ring of rolling hills that some imagine: its boundaries were not drawn up with great consideration and in fine detail but with a broad brush which sweeps up some of the least green and least pleasant sites.

It is not uncommon for the requirements of the planning system to protect the Green Belt to be misinterpreted or misapplied, whether wittingly or otherwise. We saw the situation unfold in relation to the St Albans Local Plan where sites in the Green Belt suitable for fewer than 400 units (the St Albans threshold for strategic sites) were not considered for allocation regardless of their sustainability or existing use. This led to the preference for larger sites, which arguably had a greater impact on the Green Belt. This was one of the contributing factors which led to the failure of the Local Plan. Not only does it defy the essence of the guidance in the NPPF, but it also defies logic.

We need to move away from the position whereby the Green Belt is seen as sacrosanct, so that sustainable new homes can be delivered in such a way that their presence ‘enhances’ and ‘greens’ the Green Belt – as specified in the Levelling Up White Paper. We feel that it is right that the case for development in certain locations should be more robust, but also that Green Belt boundaries should be amended in Local Plans where necessary.

It is perhaps inevitable, given the dire shortage of homes and certain facilities, that development within land designated as Green Belt is increasingly permitted. Carter Jonas, acting on behalf of Axis Land Partnerships Ltd, recently achieved planning consent at appeal, for a significant retirement village facility which falls entirely within the Cambridge Green Belt. The retirement village will provide extra care housing and associated care, leisure and health and wellbeing facilities for older people. The scheme will also deliver a countryside park comprising approximately 21 hectares of publicly accessible green space on the edge of the village. The development proposals were initially refused by on the grounds of conflict between the retirement village element of the proposals and national and local planning policies concerning Green Belt development.

The appeal decision, however, recognised that the local need for specialist older people’s housing along with the wider public and biodiversity benefits of the scheme clearly outweighed the harm to the Cambridge Green Belt arising from the development. it is clear that the Cambridge Green Belt is overly restrictive, impacting on the provision of these much-needed facilities as well as house price affordability. Just as with the housing scheme mentioned previously, the consented scheme provides substantial biodiversity enhancements and a strong case was made in favour of sensitive development on the Green Belt.

The flawed application of Green Belt policies results in far too many planning applications being determined at appeal. And in the absence of appropriate, deliverable and up-to-date Local Plans, this number is increasing. Appeals determine planning applications based only on their own merits, and so the system becomes one of development control rather being led by strategic planning. Strategic planning should exist to consider planning applications in the context of broader considerations including transport connectivity and sustainability, but progress on Local Plans up and down the country is at an all-time low as result of under-resourcing, political uncertainty, and moratoriums imposed as a result of disproportionate reactions to environmental issues such as water neutrality. The absence of strategic planning means that substantial schemes are often considered in independently of these considerations. If the Local Plan process was more effective, ample suitable land would be allocated through the planning system and the appeals process used infrequently.

Unfortunately, all too often the Green Belt provides arbitrary protection for previously developed sites which provide little or no aesthetic or natural value. These are sites which could provide much needed housing, including affordable housing, while also increasing biodiversity and creating public open spaces. Policies to protect such sites do little to address either the levelling up agenda or the housing crisis.