Building on green belt land: Is it viable for your development?

The often emotive issue of green belt development has again roused sensitives following a landmark court ruling. But will the latest judgement make it easier to build on green belt land? Paul Walton, director at PWA Planning, examines the broader picture.

A major judgment by the Court of Appeal has far-reaching implications for housing developers looking at potential opportunities to build on green belt land.

The purpose of the case was to discuss the interpretation of the National Planning Policy Framework, which says: ‘Housing applications should be considered in the context of the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Relevant policies for the supply of housing should not be considered up-to-date if the local planning authority cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites’.

The court correctly observed that there are a number of interpretations of what constitutes ‘relevant policies for the supply of housing’. Narrow definitions relate specifically to housing policies, whereas broader interpretations include policies that restrict development for preservation reasons, such as green belt, open countryside policies, and National Parks. After due deliberation the court confirmed that the broader definition should apply.

The facts about building on green belt land

Up until now there have been numerous decisions where housing development has been prioritised over open countryside, but developers have very rarely challenged green belt policies. All this could – and many would argue should – change.

Figures published by the Daily Telegraph suggest 15 new homes in England are now approved on Green Belt land on a daily basis.

Moreover, the Campaign to Protect Rural England says the loosening of the restrictions will see thousands more new homes built on the green belt, while a CPRE report in March revealed that almost 220,000 houses were planned for the green belt in England – 60,000 more than in August 2013.

The need to take a realistic perspective on planning policies

It is important, though, to be careful not to overstate the impact of these developments: Green belt land is not at risk of disappearing under an avalanche of new housing schemes.

Of course we must avoid a development free-for-all, but as mentioned in another of my recent blogs, most green belt was established many years ago and has not been objectively reviewed since.

The Court of Appeal ruling confirms that, depending on local circumstances, planning authorities must balance the benefits of an application against its impact – even if the site is currently protected.

The implications for developers

For developers aiming to obtain planning permission for schemes on unallocated sites, the judgment is a broadly welcome and encouraging development.

It will change the situation in which numerous appeals have hinged on whether councils have current local plans and five-year housing supplies. Instead, the latest judgement means the presumption in favour of sustainable development cannot be activated only if a development plan is ‘silent, or absent’ or if policies have become out-of-date.

The policies of the NPPF – including the presumption in favour of sustainable development – are important if we are to protect our environment, while taking a measured and forward-thinking approach that also addresses issues such as the UK’s serious housing shortage.

Paul Walton is a director of PWA Planning, a team of specialist planning consultants in Preston. Paul is able to advise developers and the wider built environment community on the viability of green belt development. For further information or advice call Paul on 01772 369669.