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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Black

It's not easy being green

This morning came news that Starmer and Rayner will today set out the labour proposals for a housebuilding drive on the ‘Grey Belt.’  In doing so they set out a series of golden rules for building on such land that they say will ‘take on the blockers and back the dream of home ownership. Not second home ownership though eh Angela? (phnar). This is done, they say, in light of ‘abject failure to build the homes our country needs’.


So let’s look at what those golden rules are and what they might mean for housebuilding in the green belt.


1.     Brownfield First


In making the announcement, they were at pains to say that brownfield land would be prioritised for development. No real change there then. But we know that there isn’t enough of it and it is time that this is firmly acknowledged as a starting point in any conversation about housing supply.


2.     Grey Belt Second


Poor Quality and Ugly Areas of the green belt should be prioritised over nature rich, environmentally valuable land in the green belt.

Let's unpack that shall we?


Poor Quality??? So lets take that in its ordinary meaning that this would mean poorly performing against the purposes of the green belt. The question then is, how poor? How many purposes would it have to perform poorly against? And also who judges that quality? I’ve sat in enough local plan examinations where local authorities have done a green belt assessment to judge blatantly poorly performing sites to perform well in order to justify no allocations.


Ugly???? Well we all know that bringing beauty into the planning system has caused trouble. I don’t particularly find a field of oil seed rape or turnips particular attractive. Does it have to be ugly? Does it have to be both ugly and poor quality? And how would this be manifest itself in planning policy. Given this appear to apply to both plan making and decision taking will we see grey belt being added to the list of exceptions to inappropriate development in para 154? Or will we see a rewriting of paragraph 154 in relation to Very Special Circumstances.


3.     Affordable Homes


Plans must target at least 50% affordable housing delivery when land is released.

Bold claims and not to be criticised. But this is about viability, quality and deliverability. What is better, a consent with 40 or even 30% affordable housing which delivers straight away or one with 50% that takes 3 years and is value engineered to within an inch of its life?


What about other forms of housing? We know of the massive undersupply of appropriate housing for older people. Why not keep the grey belt well….grey?  


4.     Boost Public Services and Infrastructure


Plans must boost public services and local infrastructure like more school and nursery places, new health centres and GP Appointments.

Firstly on health centres, as anyone knows who has tried to incorporate health provision as part of a site this is easier said than done. There just isn’t the money to fund such infrastructure with the clinicians being disenfranchised as part of the process. That needs some thinking about.

Also provision of school and nursery places is a matter which is wrapped up in no less red tape. For another blog on another day, but the integration of infrastructure as part of large schemes needs a massive rethink.


5.     Improve genuine green spaces.


Labour rules out building on genuine nature spots and requires plans to include improvements to existing green spaces, making them accessible to the public, with new woodland, parks and playing fields. Plans should meet high environmental standards.


Certainly not to be argued with. Green Belt/Grey Belt development can offer up significant opportunities for such provision and good development will integrate these things in any event.


Overall then, why should planning reform be limited only to a poorly defined abstract notion of ‘grey belt’? If a site is in a highly sustainable location and partially against green belt purposes why shouldn’t that be considered? I can think of an example of a large town in the green belt in Surrey where I was promoting a green belt site which had only ever been used for intensive agriculture and had pretty much zero biodiversity, the council had rated as highly performing against the purposes of the green belt BUT you could hit the train station/town centre with a 5 iron and it offered the tremendous opportunity for sustainable development. On the other had there was a dirty old scrap yard 4 miles away on the very edge of town with dodgy access, high amount of contamination, power lines going across it and a host of other constraints. I don’t have to tell you which the council chose to allocate in the local plan. Nor will it surprise you to know that 8 years from adoption of that plan that allocated site has failed to deliver (or even had an application submitted) when my client's site could have been delivering housing by now which would have helped that particular authority with what has become a very difficult five year housing land supply issue.


On the media round this morning the Tories were yet to properly respond but the Lib Dems (remember them?) said that they would seek to communities first. What… mean like Localism?  


So lots of questions, lots of detail needed. But you have to give Starmer and Rayner credit where credit is due. We do need to talk about green belt and if this starts the conversation then we should be happy with that. Lets keep talking.


I’m off to ask Count Binface what he would do.





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