Last edited 25 Sep 2020

Green belt planning practice guidance

On 6 October the government published guidance on the protection of the green belt under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Ref Do housing and economic needs override constraints on the use of land, such as Green Belt?

An accompanying press release on 4 October by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), ref Councils must protect our precious green belt land, suggested that brownfield land should be prioritised and that ‘Councils should use their Local Plan, drawing on protections in the National Planning Policy Framework, to safeguard their local area against urban sprawl, and protect the green lungs around towns and cities.’

DCLG suggest that once they have been established, green belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional cases, and that this should be done through the preparation or review of the Local Plan. Housing need does not justify harm to the green belt.

The guidance makes clear that the National Planning Policy Framework should be read as a whole, and that need is not the only issue to be considered in drawing up a Local Plan, it is just the first stage. The local planning authority should then prepare a strategic housing land availability assessment which takes account of constraints such as:

Green belt should not be confused with open countryside or 'green-field' development. The conflation of green belt and open countryside can be very misleading.

This is why there is no real policy conflict when, in an interview on BBC2’s Newsnight in November 2012, the then planning minister Nick Boles, suggested that more than 388,000 hectares of open countryside would have to be built on to meet housing demand and said, “We’re going to protect the green belt – but if people want to have housing for their kids they have got to accept we need to build more on some open land”.

Green belt is a very specific planning policy designation, not a general policy applicable to the countryside at large and gives a greater degree of protection from inappropriate development in those areas.

The government's policy position is broadly that the green belt be protected almost at all costs, but consequently that development needs (in particular for new housing) will have to be accommodated in sustainable locations in other areas (including open countryside) outside the specific designations where planning policy imposes specific constraints.

Green Belts are normally designated around major cities and conurbations or historic market towns. 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.

This concept of permanence appears to be behind the clarification of the guidance and reiterates the principle that there is effectively a presumption against changing the extent of green belt in the preparation of a local plan simply to accommodate an objectively identified housing need.

The implication is that local planning authorities with large areas of designated green belt may not be expected to provide the full quantum of their objectively assessed housing need within their area if this would erode the green belt. The inference of that is then that any unmet need may have to be accommodated in less constrained neighbouring authorities and most likely facilitated through the mechanism of the 'duty to cooperate' at the plan preparation stage.

The guidance also essentially confirms the government's policy position that, in the determination of planning applications in the green belt, the simple unmet need for housing as a material consideration alone is unlikely to outweigh the harm to green belt policies,and other harm, to tip the planning balance in favour of inappropriate development in the green belt.

Permission for inappropriate development in the green belt still relies on the material considerations in favour (whether singularly or combined) outweighing the combined harm to policy and any actual harm that may be identified and creating the very special circumstances that permit such inappropriate development to take place.

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