Countryside debate: housing and the Green Belt

Hilary Newport, Director of CPRE Kent

Hilary Newport, Director of CPRE Kent - Credit: Archant

Demand for housing development in the south east is huge, but can the Green Belt hold back the tide of seemingly unstoppable growth?

Urban areas have a tendency to sprawl. You only have to look at how London has incrementally eaten its way into the Home Counties to appreciate this. This growth appears inexhaustible, specifically in the south east, where the demand for housing development in the coming years is larger than anywhere else in the UK.

But there is a natural check to this rapacious appetite for growth: the Green Belt, areas of land that exist around urban areas upon which development is limited.

The Metropolitan Green Belt, part of which covers a large chunk of northern Kent, was the first such area of open land to be created. The Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938 permitted local authorities around London to purchase land to be protected as open space.

This was followed by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which allowed local authorities to designate areas to be protected as part of the Green Belt within their development plans.

Despite the way in which our towns and cities have grown since then, by and large the Green Belt has done its job.

Today, the area under protection remains mainly rural, with seven per cent given over to development, much of this small scale and widely scattered, reflecting the existing distribution of farms and cottages.

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The overall area covered by the Green Belt has also doubled since the late 1970s, reaching around 160 million hectares today (13 per cent of England’s land total).

“Despite fears about urban expansion, it still remains more difficult to gain planning permission to build in these protected areas,” says David Jarman, a specialist in Green Belt development in Kent for property consultants Hobbs Parker.

Although there are several examples in our county of significant developments upon Green Belt land, such as The Chase in Longfield (17 houses and 13 apartments on the site of an old school), according to David these tend to be the minority.

“In general, although it’s possible for developers to build in these protected areas, much of what really takes place tends to be very small in scale, such as the modification of a site or the replacement of a single, existing dwelling,” he explains.

“For larger developments, the planning process is usually more complicated and local communities and interested parties have tended to be in a stronger position when it comes to raising objections.”

In recent years, calls for a change to this level of protection and for the regulations covering Green Belt development to be eased have become more numerous.

The need to build millions of new homes across the UK, including tens of thousands here in Kent, has led several politicians and those involved with the building sector to demand that development on Green Belt land becomes more commonplace.

“There has always been pressure on the Green Belt, but in recent years this has increased. Homes are demanded and developers see building on protected land as a cheaper option to utilising Brownfield sites,” says Ian Driver, Kent Green Party.

According to Ian, this problem is particularly acute in the south east, where Kent, Essex and Surrey have the twin problems of accommodating the growth of their own towns as well as that of the ever-expanding nearby metropolis.

“The northern part of Kent is under constant pressure because of London. The capital is always in need of more housing and expands all the time,” adds Ian.

Many environmental groups and those with an interest in landscape protection believe that in recent years the security of the Green Belt has been undermined by the introduction of the Coalition Government’s National Policy Planning Framework.

“Although the Government has claimed it is committed to protecting the Green Belt as it is, their actions suggest otherwise,” says Hilary Newport, director of CPRE Kent.

The NPPF was designed to simplify the planning process, condensing 1000-plus pages of planning policy into about 50.

“But in the process what the government also did was place more onus upon development (even inside the Green Belt) within the planning process,” adds Hilary.

Planning authorities are now duty bound to address identified housing needs and to review Green Belt boundaries.

“This has caused much public concern for the future of Green Belt policy,” says Steve Humphrey, Director of Planning, Housing and Environmental Health for Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council.

“Some recent planning appeal decisions have demonstrated that Green Belt policy can be set aside if the need to supply land to accommodate new homes is overriding.”

The reality now is that with the new emphasis on housing needs, local people with objections to planned development, such as those in Pembury who are battling a Green Belt planning proposal in their village, are in a weaker position than they were before the introduction of NPPF.

“Although the new planning framework is the most overt attack on the Green Belt evident to date, it’s actually symptomatic of an approach to this issue by all political parties in recent decades, which has seen successive governments try different ways to chip away at the protection afforded to designated Green Belt land,” says Hilary.

Part of the problem with the debate surrounding such development is the unquestionable need for more housing.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the gap between housing demand and supply will have widened into 1.1m homes in England by 2022, most of this in London and the south east.

“With people in Kent desperate to get a foot on the property ladder, the prospect of more, and relatively affordable homes, will obviously strike a chord,” says Ian Driver.

“You can understand why, in light of this, concern over the defence of the Green Belt might not be paramount in the mind of someone who wants a home of their own.”

But there are many here in Kent, like Hilary, who believe that the housing demands of the south east can still be accommodated without swathes of the county’s Green Belt being paved over.

“The CPRE recognises that more housing needs to be created but this has to be done in a smart way,” she says.

“Aside from utilising brownfield sites and bringing back into use the many thousands of homes currently unoccupied, we would be happy to see small developments take place within the Green Belt in rural areas, if these had an affordable element and worked in harmony with the local community.

“What we don’t want is huge developments simply plonked in the middle of protected countryside, for the sole reason that this is the cheapest option.”

For more than 75 years the Green Belt has been protecting open spaces from the endless expansion of our towns and cities. But the pressure to develop remains intense and will continue to grow in the future.

Only time will tell then whether this is one belt that is eventually loosened. n