Falling within 186 local authority areas, the green belt covers some 13 per cent of the land area of England and the designation has become a topical issue over the last few years as councils have begun to embark on green belt assessments as part of their local plan work. They are one of the most long-standing planning policies and are popular with the general public. Therefore, any changes proposed to green belts are invariably very contentious.
A CPRE opinion poll carried out in 2015 highlighted that 71 per cent of respondents said they knew little about green belts, had heard of them but knew nothing about them, or had never heard of green belts, yet 65 per cent of the same respondents strongly agreed that Green Belt land should be retained and not built on. This only makes it more difficult for local authorities to complete a Green Belt Assessment, when the public want to protect something that they do not understand.
Often the reasons behind why the public want green belt to be protected does not relate to the purposes of green belt both set out historically in planning policy and retained in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). NPPF describes the five purposes of the green belts:
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.
This is at odds with public perception of green belts as being about protecting attractive areas of countryside and providing areas for public recreation.
Planners have a key role in explaining the purposes of the green belt to the public as well as elected members. This is particularly important when authorities are undertaking an assessment of their green belt.
Planners need to be able to clearly explain why an assessment of the green belt is appropriate. In our experience, elected members are often reassured to know that the majority of authorities with green belts are already undertaking a Green Belt Assessment and it is a key part of the local plan evidence base; it is normal and timely.
There is no national guidance on how to complete a green belt assessment requiring authorities to develop a method that suits their particular needs. But from our experience of undertaking over 20 Green Belt Assessments, there are a number of useful lessons for local authority planners considering how to undertake such studies.
Planners need to review the purposes of green belt to ensure they are locally interpreted and relevant. They need to provide an evidenced case for the settlements in the local area that can be described as ‘towns’ or ‘large built-up areas’. They need to identify local ‘historic towns’ and how green belt impacts on their setting and character. They need to provide a case for the relationship between development in the green belt and development on urban brownfield sites. Understanding the history and original purposes behind the designation of the green belt will also be relevant.
It is increasingly being considered best practice to assess the entire extent of the green belt in a given area for a comprehensive assessment. A pragmatic balance is needed to achieve comprehensive coverage along with more detailed assessments in areas where green belt release is most likely to be an appropriate development option. Local authorities also need to develop a transparent and consistent approach to assessing “openness”. Based on our experience at examinations and green belt-related Section 78 inquiries, we understand the importance for local authorities of developing a transparent and consistent approach to assessing openness throughout the Green Belt assessment.
Some assessments do not use all five purposes of the Green Belt in the assessment. However, it can be beneficial to include all five to prevent the indirect weighting of purposes. Many local authorities find it helpful to include an overall conclusion for each area assessed as this helps feed into the wider site selection work required in plan making.
To summarise, the key points to consider in assessing a green belt are:
Clarify the purpose of the green belt and the purpose of any assessment
Assess the entire extent of the green belt
Provide a local interpretation of each purpose
Include each green belt purpose in the assessment
Ensure a transparent and consistent approach to assessing openness
Add an overall assessment for each area assessed
Jane Healey-Brown is an associate director and Sarah Grady is a planner at consultants Arup.