Yesterday David Cooper, one of the UK’s most senior planning lawyers, has called for the Green Belt policy to be scrapped, describing it as ‘the worst thing that ever happened to the economics of this country’.
Cooper called for green belt land to be “totally released” and argues that it is there to “protect the middle classes from social housing and property developers.”
I understand his frustration and agree that there needs to be a complete overhaul of housing policy because there are simply not enough homes to go around.
The lack of housing in this country is having a devastating impact, evidenced today by a report from The Children’s Commissioner for England which found more than 210,000 children are homeless and whole families are living in tiny spaces no bigger than a parking space.
This is clearly unacceptable, and something needs to be done. But when we have enough suitable brownfield land in England to build more than a million new homes, surely, we need to utilise this first before concreting over the countryside?
Cooper says the problem is the housing policy surrounding the green belt, but I think the policy surrounding brownfield land is more of an issue.
Through analysis of local council brownfield registers, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has found there are more than 18,000 sites – an increase of 2,600 since February 2018 – and more than 26,000 hectares of brownfield land that could be built on.
According to the CPRE most of this land is ready to be built on now but, of the sites identified, only half have been granted planning permission.
So, what is the problem?
Unlike land that has never been built on before, brownfield sites need to be demolished and then prepared for residential use. This means making sure any environmental liabilities are removed, that the site is refilled, and that services and utilities are made accessible.
Depending on what the site’s previous use was, this can be a costly and lengthy process, all of which has to happen before any actual development has taken place.
So, despite the fact councils, planners and developers are keen to bring life back to abandoned industrial sites in prime locations – it is often unfeasible – and green belt is often used instead.
The idea that greenbelt land is currently protected is a myth. According to research by BBC Radio 4, in 2015, approval was given for 11,977 homes to be built on greenbelt land. This was double the permissions given the year before and almost four times the number of homes built on greenbelt in 2010.
England’s 14 Green Belts currently cover 12.4% of the land in the country, and in order to keep it that way, the government needs a housing policy where brownfield land is prioritised.
The government has to make it more attractive to developers – by way of subsidies or a streamlined planning process – to build on brownfield over greenbelt.
It needs to be cheaper and quicker to build on brownfield than green belt and councils must be authorised to refuse planning permission for greenfield sites where there are suitable brownfield alternatives.
We cannot have a situation where we choose to build on what countryside we have left when there is space for a million new homes on land that is currently sitting abandoned.
Neil Knight is Business Development Director, Spicerhaart Part Exchange and Assisted Move