Housing and green belt

Why is my local authority planning to build on green belt land which was given protection in the 2015 Conservative Manifesto? 

In 2012 the coalition government produced the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).  The aim was to make the planning system less complex and more accessible.  NPPF gave specific protection for green belt land and designated 5 core purposes.

79. The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.

80.  Green belt serves five purposes.

  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one other;
  • to assist in saving the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and historic character of historic towns; and
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land. 

In 2015 the Conservative Manifesto reinforced protection for green belt land until 2020.

“We will ensure that local people have more control over planning and protect the Green Belt. We will encourage more neighbourhood planning and protect the Green Belt.  Neighbourhood planning gives more power to local people, allowing them to play a much stronger role in shaping their areas.”

Mid-term, in February 2017 the Conservative government issued a White Paper – fixing-our-broken-housing-market  This paper accepted that the housing market was failing to deliver for those wishing to buy and those in rented accommodation.  In relation to green belt land the White Paper confirmed that homes should only be built in ‘exceptional circumstances’

Green Belt 
The fundamental aim of the green belt has been to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. The NPPF currently states that the Green Belt should be amended only in “exceptional circumstances”. 

The government propose to include changes to the NPPF so “local communities can hold their councils to account” over the definition of exceptional. In addition, it is proposed that the NPPF be amended to make clear that authorities should amend Green Belt boundaries only when they can demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting identified development requirements. Including; making effective use of suitable brownfield sites, estate regeneration, currently underused land, surplus public sector land, optimising the proposed density of development and exploring what other authorities can help to meet housing needs. blandy.co/white-paper-summary

On the surface, this would appear to be government assurance for continued protection of green belt land.  However, the local authority argues that other requirements in the White Paper make it impossible for them to meet central government targets without redesignating areas of green belt.  Under the guise of ‘local democracy’  the government has shifted responsibility for greenbelt land from themselves into the hands of ‘local communities’ in negotiation with their councillors.  The definition of ‘exceptional circumstances’ is ambiguous and this perceived loophole has led to a number of campaign groups springing up across the county to argue their case with such heated debate that future meetings have been planned to take place in council offices for security reasons.  The White Paper has effectively set the local people against their local authority with neither side able to appeal to central government for support.

Why can’t Surrey Council meet its housing requirement without building on green belt land?

Following an independent Housing Market Assessment over which the authority had no control, Surrey Council is required to present a plan to build 9,450 residential units by 2035.  This is equivalent to the size of Weybridge.   The authority must allocate land for housing at least every 5 years according to the White Paper instead of the previous 15-year plans.  If the council fails to meet the ‘objectively assessed housing need’ then they can be stripped of their right to control where homes are built and this will revert directly to central government.  If this happens neither the local council nor the local communities will have any say over the building of new homes across Surrey.

One local councillor stated; “Whether you are Conservative with a small or big ‘C’ there is no denying that the Government have put councils into a position where they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

For example, across Elmbridge, 65% of the land is currently designated green belt.  In addition, the local authority cannot build on floodplains, allotments or playing fields.  Following an assessment, it has been estimated that 3,500 homes could be built on land which is currently available but that leaves a shortfall of 6,000 units.

The local authority has to decide whether to build in high-rise developments to make more use of the space available, putting tower blocks among village communities.  Increase urban density by ‘in-fill’ into already designated urban areas and this may mean utilising allotments and parks which are not currently designated greenbelt and relocating them into existing greenbelt zones.  The option to increase urban density is considered by many to be exhausted.  Do more to utilise  brownfield sites where available or re-designate green belt land. Shaping-Elmbridge-A-New-Local-Plan

Bonnar Allan have proposed to build 1,024 new homes at Drakepark between Hersham and Esher. The plan was refused by the council in November 2016 as this land is designated green belt. The developers have now gone to appeal and hope that the ‘strategic housing needs assessment’ will strengthen their case. getsurrey/July2016.

Following a heated meeting on further development across Surrey a councillor explained that the only way to win the appeal against Drakepark was to deliver a revised plan elsewhere.  If the council lose on appeal then not only will they pay the costs from limited taxpayer funds, this will also open the way for further development on green belt land beyond their control.

By effectively forcing Local Authorities to designate green belt land for construction Central government are able to approve on the basis it has been a local decision, in line with the White Paper, despite the fact that there has been vociferous objection throughout.

  • One of the key objections from campaign groups is that developers don’t build affordable homes, in any event, so giving up green belt will not make it any easier for their children to buy in the area – just makes money for private firms.
  • Another is that the council don’t make sufficient use of brownfield sites.  The problem here is that developers are reluctant to take on brownfield where work needs to be done to clean up the area which may include toxic waste.  Basically, brownfield housing does not return the same profit margin.  Developers have also been accused of sitting on brownfield sites to increase opportunity for release of greenfield.

Preserving green belt land is one aspect of a much wider housing problem.

  • Years of decline in councils building social housing at 50% market rate rents going back to the 1980’s.
  • Not allowing councils sufficient leverage to fund new building work.  Not allowing money from sale of council homes under right-to-buy to be put back into new housing.  Council-Housing-Report-2013
  • Not ensuring that Housing Associations build new like-for-like property when their homes are sold under new right-to-buy.
  • Over-reliance on the private market to build affordable homes which they are reluctant to do as it limits their returns.
  • Foreign investment in construction across London which results in empty properties bought by overseas investors and consequently movement into surrounding areas such as Surrey from London home buyers/renters.
  • Cuts to housing benefit forcing more into the rented market.
  • Failure to control rents and tenant security as well as provide habitable properties.
  • 2010 Affordable Rent Model introduced under the coalition government lowered the capital grant per home to be offset by higher rent (up to 80% market rent).  This encouraged registered providers to build higher rent homes to avoid loss.  Point 2.2 Council Housing Report
  • Failure to provide suitable accommodation for older people to ‘downsize’.

This Guardian article from February 2017 gives a good overview of a number of housing issues.

guardian./housing-white-paper-raises-more-questions-than-answers

So who is responsible for the housing crisis?

Developers have gained the upper hand over local authorities regarding planning due to low regulation and active changes to legislation in their favour.

Bullied and undermined, planning authorities have been left castrated and toothless, stripped of the skills and power they need to regulate, and sapped of the spatial imagination to actually plan places. As one house-builder puts it simply, “The system is ripe for sharp developers to drive a bulldozer right through.” And they will continue to do so with supercharged glee, squeezing the life out of our cities and reaping rewards from the ruins, until there is something in the way to stop them.    theguardian.com/truth-property-developers-builders-exploit-planning-cities  (2014 – detailed article concerning the power of developers to win contracts)

It would seem that when Conservative councillors write ‘fighting for our local communities’ on their campaign literature they are actually fighting their colleagues in central government.

In Esher and Walton our representative is Dominic Raab.  He has repeatedly vouched for the protection of the green belt whilst at the same time voting in line with central government policy on housing.  You can see Mr Raab’s votes since 2015 at the bottom of the page. 

On the introduction of the NPPF in 2011 Mr Raab contributed the following to the debate;  “Rather than being forced to comply with diktats from a distant and faceless regional quango, Elmbridge borough council has replaced the regional plan with a local plan, after extended local consultation. Elected councillors will be accountable to residents for planning policy. That strengthens local democracy and I welcome it wholeheartedly.”   Then continued to seek a number of clarifications which can be read in full here.   parliament.uk/hansrd/2011  Dominic voted in favour of introducing the NPPF (see below)

Regarding the changes brought about by the introduction of the housing White Paper Dominic stated in ‘Get Surrey’ that he had written a letter to Elmbridge Borough Council stressing the importance of protecting the green belt.  (17.2.17)

  He said: “I fought very hard in 2011 and 2012 to retain existing green belt protections, and see off attempts to dilute them. I have been similarly active and engaged in relation to the new proposals which have now been set out in the government’s housing white paper, published on February 7.  getsurrey/mp-dominic-raab

Hansard reveals that Dominic Raab asked a question regarding protection of the green belt in a debate held on 17.9.2012. On receipt of the reply, there were no further questions.

Mr Raab: I understand that the Government want to legislate further to streamline planning as part of their economic growth strategy. Elmbridge in my constituency is 57% green-belt land. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the proposed legislation will not contain any new proposals that might weaken protection of green-belt land, and, critically, that planning inspectors will have no right to trump local democratic decision making?

Mr Pickles: I have good news for my hon. Friend. Based on calculations, it is not 57% green belt, but 60%.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): It’s just gone up.

Mr Pickles: It is as the right hon. Gentleman says.  Of course we are not looking to affect my hon. Friend’s constituency. The green belt is immensely important. It is a green lung and prevents major conurbations from bumping into one another.

theyworkforyou.com/debates

On 5tth September 2011, Dominic Raab sought a written answer from Greg Clark Minister for State concerning protection for the green belt.  No follow-up was recorded.

21. Mr Raab: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what steps he is taking to protect the green belt. [69943]

Greg Clark: The draft National Planning Policy Framework is unequivocal in continuing the protection of the green belt. By abolishing the previous Government’s Regional Spatial Strategies, through the Localism Bill, we are removing the top-down pressure on local authorities to remove the green belt in 30 areas across England.

theyworkforyou/protection of green belt

There is no reference in Hansard that Dominic Raab has spoken or asked written questions regarding the Housing White Paper to date. 

He gave a recent commitment following his readoption as parliamentary candidate;  “I am proud of our record of cutting taxes for families, securing investment for two new local secondary schools, and opposing attempts to build on the Greenbelt. And I look forward to making the case for the strong and stable leadership that a Conservative government under Theresa May will give our country. dominicraab.com/2017/05/03

March 2017 blog post on tackling local homelessness;  “The aim of the event, in partnership with the charity Homeless Link, was to launch ‘Future Focus’ – a set of principles to ensure a sustainable future for the supported housing sector.”   dominicraab./2017/03/01

In January 2016 he had voted for housing benefit cuts to those in supported housing.

 

 

Dominic Raab’s voting record:

 

cuts to benefits in secure housing