Not enough homes are being built, particularly in the South East. Large brownfield sites are increasingly getting harder to come by and deliver quickly . Prices keep going up. Demand is racing ahead of supply. All of which makes having a home less affordable for many.
So, what’s the answer?
Well, Garden Cities might have a role to play, but significant results will be some way down the line. And strong demand can more often than not always be found out in the leafy suburbs. Thus it is hardly surprising that the Green Belt is eyed up by some as not only the most sustainable available option, but indeed, an increasingly necessary location for development.
Back at the end of January, Inspector Martin Pike’s report on the examination into Reigate and Banstead Borough Council’s Core Strategy concluded that the plan provided "an appropriate basis" for planning in that borough, provided that a number of modifications were made: a recognition that "some loss of greenbelt land to housing development will be necessary" to meet the borough’s housing needs.
This made Nick Boles's ears prick up. As Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Planning, Mr Boles is charged, amongst other things, with keeping the application of national planning policies on the straight and narrow. It wasn’t so much the conclusions that caught Mr.Boles's attention, but the Inspector's choice of language, particularly the use of that potentially pernicious word ‘necessary’.
As a result, there ensued an informative exchange of correspondence between Nick Boles and Sir Michael Pitt, the Chief Executive of the Planning Inspectorate. This comprised of three letters, starting with one from the minister on the 3rd March, prompting a reply from Sir Michael on 6th March, and a further one from Nick Boles on 13th March.
They are an informative read. The nub of the issue is that the use of the word ‘necessary’ might be taken to imply that meeting objectively assessed local housing need some how trumps the otherwise assumed permanence of Green Belts.
Not so says Mr Boles, Green Belts have a special place in planning policy. Yes, objectively assessed needs should be met unless specific policies indicate development should be restricted. Crucially, Green Belt is identified as one such policy. So, no trumps.
That is not to say however, that Green Belts are totally sacrosanct. In exceptional circumstances, boundaries can indeed be rolled back. But as Mr Boles put it in his 3rd March letter ‘it must however be transparently clear that it is the local authority itself which has chosen that path'. Top down directions, whether from Central Government or the Inspectorate, requiring changes to the Green Belt generally, won't sit comfortably with the Coalition's localism ideals.
But that doesn’t take away underlying housing pressures, including those on the Green Belt. So unless a Green Belt authority volunteers a review, where will the housing go instead? Under the Localism Act 2011, Councils are under a cross-boundary ‘duty to cooperate’ in meeting strategic priorities. So it might be reasonable to expect non Green Belt neighbours to help relieve some of the local pressure. The problem is that the duty to cooperate is not a duty to agree, and in many areas, the roll out of up-to-date Local Plans is already behind anyway.
With both local and general elections on the horizon, and faced with a choice between meeting housing need or protecting the Green Belt, it is to be expected that the default option for many councils will be to opt for the latter. Likewise many neighbours won't be too keen to put their hands up to take any more growth than they think is absolutely necessary.
Hence, in the run up to the general election, it would be a bold developer who seeks to challenge the Green Belt unless the locals are already on side with the idea. Effective local lobbying is key if you go down that road. Perhaps though it is their non Green Belt neighbours that ought to think more carefully now about whether or not they are taking their fair share of the housing pressure or not. It ought to go somewhere, which potentially still leaves Inspectors with a big headache – if some local authorities just don’t want to play ball, how do you substantially increase supply and tackle affordability more quickly?
The latest independent Scottish planning review and its impacts
27 June 2016
An independent review of the Scottish planning system has seen that further change is required to make the system fit for the future.
Changes to permitted development rights
16 March 2016
The Government has published additional and revised ‘permitted development rights’ to allow change of use of property without planning permission, coming into force on 6 April 2016.