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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We know that the Conservatives can’t be trusted with our green spaces, at national and local levels. When the Conservatives were last in charge of Croydon Council they sold off green belt land at Cane Hill and gave permission for a developer to build all over it.
There is only one major party that you can trust to look after our green spaces and the wider environment. If you want green then you have to vote Green!
It was actually Boris Johnson, when Mayor of London, who gave away Cane Hill to Barratts, and permission for them to build 700+ homes there.
And where do you propose to house all those let in by the Greens’ open border policies?
I wouldn’t trust any politician as they seem to look to re-election rather than their constituents’ interests.
That actually means you do not trust voters. A politician with an eye to re-election is going for what a majority of constituents want. So they will vote for that Councillor.?
So really voters should be wary of what they are asking for?
All those Tory DEMOC-rats that voted Leave, for a Mayor, for Perry and for other Conservatives at the last Council, London Assembly and General elections, and for Truss in the recent leadership campaign, are in for a shock.
Turns out that there are worse things than a Corbyn government, a Shawcross Mayoralty and being in the EU.
Vote Leave, take back control, and watch Liz destroy what’s left of England’s green and pleasant land by carpeting it in bricks, mortar and tarmac (that or fracking it to buggery), its rivers and beaches turned into open sewers.
You can bet Chris Philp will say and do nothing, he won’t bite the hand that gave him that almost-Cabinet job.
What you don’t seem to get, Arfur, it was get Newman and Scott out at any cost. That was done and everyone is delighted. Why don’t you try living in the present?
Newman was already “out” in February 2021. Scott was on his way out by then, too.
Voting in an indolent dullard as Mayor is one of those unintended consequences, another act of self-harm, that Croydon will regret for many years to come.
Once DEMOC had started there was no going back. Perry got into power but that was never the intention but a happy outcome. Newman went because he couldn’t survive a mayoral election and he knew it. That was the intention of DEMOC. Nobody wanted a Labour Mayor but nobody could imagine any mayor shittier that Tony Newman and mould that attached itself to him.
Except that isn’t what happened.
It was Churchill who said it is the victors who write the history. Though even he might have been surprised at how quickly in this case they are seeking to rewrite history, since the outcome has been so underwhelmingly poor.
It’s not me that’s harking back to the past, but you, Sue.
I’m pointing out what’s happening right now and is going to happen.
There is another benefit to the Green belt that never gets a mention.
There is overwhelming evidence that access to open space, recreational facilities (Swimming baths, sports grounds, exercise equipment community games) and parks have not only a beneficial impact on peoples metal and physical health but also reductions in antisocial behavior, low level crimes against the person and property and reduce gang crime. There is even more evidence that organised activities that involves parents, police officers and joint authority figures of Religion and Councillors make inroads by gangs and other forms of organised crime less likely to be prevalent.
The reduction in the above and poor access or high prices leads to the opposite.
The rise in poor mental health, low level crime, anti social behaviors, gang related activity , murders, gun and knife crime, etc along with the high use of Emergency services and the lack of trust or belief by many residents and associations in both Enforcement bodies speaks volumes of what route Croydon Council and the Metropolitan Police are taking. Clearly much is a Hobson’s choice steered and assisted by Central Government advisors recent Prime ministers and now Liz Truss.
What we need are elected officers and town hall administrations to say no to cuts that harm the fabric of our town and the health and well being of ALL residents.
Governments– in general, like easy short term fixes to long term problems–like the housing shortage crisis (although a crisis surely has to reach a pinnacle of badness within a reasonable tiemscale–this one is an “ongoing crisis”.
Billions of words are written every year in the planning press, the national and local press–including of course, the online press of which Inside croydon is part– about the Green belt.
As a native of the Surrey Green belt– in fact, a speculative suburban semi-detached building estate built on a beautiful piece of Surrey landscape, totally ruining it, but creating homes for thousands of Londoners– I can say truthfully, that the Green belt is a good thing, and also can be bad thing.
Good– it has saved the remaing area of Surrey- those areas that were not already changed for ever from fields and woods to bricks, tiles and tarmac — from being swamped by bungalow/ terraced/ semi-detached/ detached suburbia.
Good– it forces us to reclaim and build on brown field land.
Good- it encourages renewal and redevelopment in existing settlements
Bad– it has fossilised villages just as they were in 1945 or so–when the Green Belt came in– preventing them from evolving and -where appropriate- growing to meet modern needs.
Bad– it can lead to intensification of existing settlements that are already dense.
I would like to see all villages in the Green belt-and indeed-everywhere, given a “Village plan” which would really consider the needs for all-aged housing, for shops and services- transport links, environment in and around the village, and new state of the art sewage works and energy production. It must be very sad to be a young person in many a green belt village. Dead villages.
Expansion can be bad- such as the pre-Green belt suburbanistaion where buildings were plastered across an open landscape– but be can also be good. It all depends what is done, where it is done and how it is done. Does it merely add “housing”–or does it make for a more viable place where a range of different ages can find a good home.
It is relatively easy to build on green field sites– especially nice open farmland on well-drained soils- no things needing to be expensively demolished (like old factories), no nasties in the ground–like at old Gas Works and no woodlands to have to grub up and bulldoze.
The idea of building within half a mile of station sounds OK– if it is not just plastering more little boxes over an as yet unbuilt chunk of Green Belt. Sadly, that is a real risk.
The poverty of vision is worrying. Very
A bit like bringing back fracking by the new PM.