Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Adam Smith Institute's 'Green Belt' proposals are both wrong and silly

Not Green Belt but very protected
There's quite a gulf between the two extremes in the debate about housing supply - from those who say it's all down to planning through to those who tell us that the deliberate constraint of land supply has nothing to do with that lack of housing supply.

However, it is important when we engage in this debate that we understand the policies we criticise (or support). And it is on this point that the Adam Smith Institute consistently fails:

The first step is to classify Green Belt land into its three types. There is verdant land, with fields, meadows and woods – what most people think of when they think about Green Belts. There is ‘brown,’ or damaged land, including abandoned mines and quarries and former industrial buildings. Thirdly there is agricultural land, much of it given to intensive cultivation on vast fields using fertilizers and pesticides. It falls well short of being environmentally friendly.

Once the land is classified into its three types, the verdant land should be left untouched. All of the ‘brown’ land should be made available for building. In addition a one-mile deep strip of agricultural land at the inner edge of the Green Belt should be made available for house-building. In compensation, at least a mile of agricultural land beyond the outer edge of the Green Belt should be added to it as verdant Green Belt.

If you are to reform a policy it helps to understand the reasons for that policy existing - the ASI, in the example above, completely misunderstands the reason for us having a 'Green Belt'. And the way in which development on that land is constrained.

The Green Belt, according to policy, serves five purposes:

  1. to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  2. to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  3. to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  4. to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  5. to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

Only one of these purposes relates to aesthetics (and the protection of settings for historic towns is very narrowly drawn). The remainder of the purposes are there for the practical and essentially conservative reason of preserving the identity of places by preventing sprawl and encouraging the recycling of redundant land within those places. There's a point at which the tightness of a 'Green Belt' results in over-dense development that really isn't sustainable or in the best interests of the economy.

The ASI wants to identify what it calls 'verdant' land in the 'Green Belt' so it can be protected. Again the ASI fails to appreciate that there are a bundle of other planning mechanisms intended to do just that. These tools range from Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Special Landscape Areas (SLAs) through Habitat Regulation Assessments (HRAs) and Local Nature Partnerships to World Heritage Sites, Conservation Areas and Local Landscape Policy Areas (plus many others - too many to list). The existence or otherwise of a Green Belt is not relevant to any of these policies - they protect on the basis of scientific, ecological, archaeological or aesthetic reasons for resisting inappropriate development.

Furthermore, in broad terms, previously used land in the Green Belt (what the ASI chooses to call 'brown' or 'damaged' land) is developable. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) says it's fine for:

...the partial or complete redevelopment of previously developed sites (brownfield land), whether redundant or in continuing use (excluding temporary buildings), which would not have a greater impact on the openness of the Green Belt and the purpose of including land within it than the existing development.
This isn't always popular (as we discovered during the Rochester and Strood by-election) but it demonstrates how thoughtful and sensitive development can take place within a Green Belt. Indeed, the relaxation of policy in the NPPF has already begun to deliver:

Glenigan was approached to investigate the number of new homes being approved on greenbelt sites and found that in 2013/14, 5,607 homes were granted permission. In the following year, this had reached 11,977, which also represented a five-fold increase since 2009/10.

These developments are almost all small scale - the conversion of redundant farm buildings, infill within small hamlets and the building of individual buildings on previously developed sites. The numbers aren't sufficient to change the economics of housing supply but it is significant that a minor change in attitude to development rights in 'Green Belt' has had such a profound affect without any alteration to the purpose of that 'Green Belt' as defined in policy guidance.

There is a very strong case for a full review of London's 'Green Belt' but this isn't the same as saying that there shouldn't be a 'Green Belt' or that we should (or even in terms of practical geography, could) simply take "a one-mile deep strip of agricultural land at the inner edge of the Green Belt" for house-building. In policy terms this fails on several counts - it ignores other protections (e.g. habitat regulations, flood risk), it takes no account of current or planned infrastructure, and it makes no attempt to match the location of housing supply to objectively assessed housing need. Such a blunt approach to 'Green Belt' review is worse than previous ASI comments that simply called for 'Green Belts' (or indeed the whole planning system) to be scrapped.

Finally, the ASI's attack on "agricultural land, much of it given to intensive cultivation on vast fields using fertilizers and pesticides" doesn't sit at all well with that organisation's supposed support for markets - intensification is about the more efficient use of land and reduces production costs allowing for a sustainable sector (that might allow us to stop subsidising it quite so much). More to the point, the ASI's ugly agricultural landscape absolutely fits the core outcome of 'Green Belt' policies - openness.

I fully understand - and have a great deal of sympathy for - criticism of planning. But if we are to set out a reform approach, it has to be grounded in real geography, based on the purpose of the policy in question and must avoid the ASI's biggest error, an essentially arbitrary land allocation. If the ASI took the trouble to read and understand a little of England's planning policy, it might be able to create a better approach to 'Green Belt' reform. Until that time it's just wrong and looks silly.


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