The latest official figures show the amount of land in England designated as Green Belt in 2015-16 was 1,635,480 hectares, equivalent to 13% of the total land area. During that period, the size of England’s green belt declined by 1,020 Hectares. Altogether, eight local planning authorities adopted amended local plans during that time which contributed to this reduction in Green Belt. These authorities cited a combination of exceptional circumstances around the demand for housing and plans to release land for business use as the key reasons for taking land out of the Green Belt.
Since 1997, the size of England’s Green Belt has declined by 16,830 hectares or about 1%. Meanwhile, the most up-to-date land use change statistics for England show that 3% of new residential addresses created during 2014-15 were in the Green Belt and 7% of all land changing to residential use in 2014-15 was within designated Green Belt. So there is evidence to suggest a rise in new residential properties being built on Green Belt land although absolute numbers remain very low.
In 2015-16, there were almost 31,000 fewer new homes completed in England than was the case in 2007-08. A chronic shortage of housing supply coupled with rising demand mean that the pressure to build homes on Green Belt land is likely to continue to grow, particularly since the cost of building on those brownfield sites yet to be developed is increasingly high. With local government budgets facing continuing cuts, many brownfield sites with limited constraints on redevelopment will already have been disposed of by local authorities to generate capital. As a consequence, many remaining brownfield sites are subject to financially prohibitive constraints such as the clean-up of contaminated land.
Developing on Green Belt land remains a politically charged issue in many communities, subject to a great deal of public resistance. Against this highly challenging backdrop, what strategies can developers pursue to bring forward developments that are both financially viable and publicly acceptable?
When it comes to Green Belt development, our experience is that planning authorities increasingly expect to see evidence that a proposed development will not only have no adverse environmental impact but will actually lead to an overall enhancement in local habitats and ecology through active management.
It is also important to keep in mind that the ecological significance of designated Green Belt land varies significantly. Some of this land can have very limited ecological complexity or value while other Green Belt sites can be much more diverse in terms of structure and species. The purpose of designating land as Green Belt is also not limited to protecting local ecology. A key purpose of Green Belt is to curtail urban sprawl. Consequently, other considerations such as the impact on landscape are critically important in the assessment of potential development on green belt land.
In relation to ecology, assessing a site at an early stage is crucial so that the scheme design can incorporate measures from the outset to maintain and enhance a site’s ecology and counter with robust evidence and a well-designed scheme any objections that may be raised due to the perceived adverse impact of development on the local ecology.
Beyond this, putting in place a proper environmental management plan will allow developers to demonstrate the positive benefits a development can deliver. For Green Belt sites, this evidence is increasingly critical to securing a positive planning outcome.
These days, virtually all development sites are subject to constraints of one sort or another – be they designated Green Belt where the assumption is against development or brownfield sites with big legacy costs due to land contamination. It seems likely that those constraints will continue to become more significant as brownfield sites become more costly to develop and the pressure to develop on England’s green belt continues to build. In that context, being on the front foot when it comes to environmental planning will help developers to minimise the cost implications of those constraints through proactive planning and management and to maximise their chances of securing planning consent.