Our housing correspondent, BARRATT HOLMES, on how changes at the Department for Levelling Up could signal a change in attitude to areas protected from development
After years of Tory councillors, their friends running residents’ associations in the south of the borough, and MP Chris Philp all campaigning ferociously against even the suggestion of any development on Croydon’s Green Belt, the new Conservative government under Prime Minister Liz Truss appears ready to start concreting over swathes of previously protected land.
At least, that’s the suggestion made in the latest missive from London Communication Agency, a consultancy which is across all things London, from its politics, to its policing, to business, and its planning.
They say that the new government’s policy on Green Belt is “rather enigmatic”.
They note that in 2018, Simon Clarke, installed this month as the new Levelling Up Secretary, wrote a paper calling on the government “to unlock Green Belt land within a half-mile radius of train stations to construct 1.5million new houses”.
Truss herself is a bit of a concrete fetishist, too. In 2019, she launched her first Tory leadership campaign “with a pledge to build 1million homes on the London Green Belt”.
Hey presto, as if by magic, Clarke’s department this morning issued a new paper on the volume of Green Belt around the country.
The Green Belt, introduced in the immediate post-war years, exists to serve five functions:
- to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
- to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
- to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
- to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
- to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
Clarke’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities appears to suggest that you really can have too much of a good thing. According to DLUHC, one-eighth of England, more than 4million acres, carries Green Belt development protections.
“The extent of land designated as Green Belt in England as at 31 March 2022 was estimated at 1,638,150 hectares, around 12.6per cent of the land area of England,” they say.
According to data from the Office for National Statistics, in London, the extent of Green Belt, is even greater: 22per cent of the region’s total area. London’s Green Belt covers 34,780 hectares.
Drill down into their figures and you discover that Croydon has 2,190 hectares of Green Belt – more than 25per cent of the borough’s total area. Bromley (7,660 hectares) is 51per cent Green Belt. Sutton (600 hectares) a mere 13.8per cent (on to which they still managed to build a toxic polluting incinerator).
Tandridge, across the London-Surrey border, has 23,310 hectares of Green Belt, a whopping 93.9per cent of that local authority’s total area.
According to the ministry’s figures, 8per cent of all land in England is of developed use with around 11per cent being classified as “built-up”.
“When including land designated as Green Belt, just over 37per cent of the area of England (4.9million hectares) is protected against development by one or more environmentally-protected designations. Environmentally protected designations include National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest,” the DLUHC says.
And the Green Belt is growing. “In 2021-2022, 14 local authorities adopted new local plans or neighbourhood plans, with the result being a net increase of 24,150 hectares in the overall area of land designated as Green Belt compared to 31 March 2021.” Most of that increase came in one local authority, Northumberland, which added 26,790 hectares of protected land.
The DLUHC says, “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.”
Further into their release this morning is a passage which is, as London Communications says, decidedly enigmatic, and very much open to being interpreted in differing, even contradictory ways.
“Once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified, through the preparation or updating of plans. Strategic policies should establish the need for any changes to Green Belt boundaries, having regard to their intended permanence in the long term, so they can endure beyond the plan period.”
Housing policy, and the delivery of hundreds of thousands of new homes by profit-hungry developers, could be seen as a strategic policy that establishes the need for changes to the Green Belt.
Clarke, 37, arrived at his new office in Marsham Street as the fourth Levelling Up Secretary of State in less than a year, following Robert Jenrick (sacked by Boris Johnson), Michael Gove (sacked by Boris Johnson) and Greg Clark.
Clarke is, it is worth remembering, the person now holding the purse strings for cash-strapped Croydon, after its £150million bail-out authorised by Jenrick in early 2021.
London Communications says of Clarke that “he has previously shown a willingness to increase housebuilding and insisted on ‘take[ing] on the curse of Nimbyism’.”
Clarke “has a history of supporting ‘deregulation’ and in fact was one of relatively few Conservative MPs to publicly support the planning reforms put forward by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick – before Jenrick was sacked and replaced by Michael Gove and his reforms significantly watered down.
“However, there are contradictions inherent in what both Clarke and the new Prime Minister have said. For example, their promises of deregulation include support for scrapping ‘top-down’ housing targets for local planning authorities and promises to rein-in the power of the Planning Inspectorate, because ‘it is too easy for local councils to be overruled’.”
Planning in local authorities has also felt the impact of Tory-led government’s ill-conceived “austerity” over the past decade, with the Royal Town Planning Institute saying that expenditure on planning by English councils has been nearly halved since 2009-2010.
As Croydon’s planning department demonstrates on a weekly basis, council planners today are ill-equipped to deal with the volume of applications they receive, and are most unwilling to contemplate refusing permission for schemes which might come back via an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate.
The Truss government’s stance on Green Belt and planning policy may, in fact, be less “enigmatic” and more calculatedly convenient.
Gove’s decision to water down Jenrick’s loosening of controls on development was undoubtedly influenced by his position as an MP for a constituency in the Surrey stockbroker belt. Truss herself vacillated during the recent Tory leadership contest, wary of angering true-blue Conservative Party members in the leafy suburbs upon whose votes she depended to seal the top job.
But as London Communications notes, the pressure to build is increasingly difficult to resist.
According to research by the London Green Belt Council and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, there has been a 21per cent increase in Green Belt land being “offered up for development” by planning authorities in London and the Home Counties councils since last year.
“Just last week,” says London Communications, “Barnet council’s planning committee unanimously approved a small key worker housing scheme on Green Belt land, against – if you would believe it – officers’ recommendation to refuse.
“The reason, ‘We desperately need social, affordable housing in the area’.”
It may not be long before Croydon Council, under part-time Mayor Jason Perry and with a Conservative councillor chairing the planning committee, and with a demanding quota of new homes to deliver, is confronted with similar choices, and the need to avoid being deemed to be “Nimbys” by the new housing secretary.
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