INDUSTRY COMMENT – NPPF consultation is the ideal time to enable rural diversification in England’s Green Belts

NPPF, rural diversification expertsBy Executive Director, Rob Hindle.

Delivered at the recent CLA Buckinghamshire Debate on – IS IT TIME FOR THE GREEN BELT TO GO OR BE MORE FLEXIBLE?

Green Belt policy has been highly effective in meeting the original aim of maintaining the openness and permanence of Green Belt land. However, as with any national policy, there is room for improvement as circumstances change. And with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) consultation taking place, now is the time for such improvement.When the Green Belt was introduced in 1955, petrol was four shillings and sixpence a gallon and a pint of beer was nine (old) pence. Just as prices have changed, so has the context in which Green Belt policy was made and applied; and so should the policy if it is to operate proportionately and consistently.

It is important to remember that the reasons land is designated as Green Belt are specific and limited. National planning policy sets out the five statutory purposes of Green Belt. These are to:

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

None of these objectives are threatened by proportionate rural diversification projects; as promoted and supported by other aspects of National Planning Policy (paragraphs 28 and 55 of the NPPF specifically).

Green Belt is essentially a policy for spatial separation with an ancillary objective to promote urban regeneration introduced at a time when the focus of all farmers was exclusively on food production. It was never intended to prevent sound rural economic growth or the development of value adding rural diversification activity. In fact, quite the reverse, it sought to enable relevant land uses through the exceptions to inappropriate development included within the policy.

The challenge that we have is that, unlike planning policy for the remainder of the countryside, these exceptions have not kept pace with the pace of change affecting those living and working in the rural areas which Green Belts affect. As a result, Green Belt policy is now diametrically opposed to the enabling approach to rural development and diversification set out within current national planning policy.

Outside Green Belt, paragraph 28 (NPPF) states that planning policies and decisions should enable:

  • the sustainable growth and expansion of all types of business in rural areas, both through conversion of existing buildings and well-designed new buildings;
  • the development and diversification of agricultural and other land-based rural businesses;
  • sustainable rural tourism and leisure developments which respect the character of the countryside.

Inside Green Belt, paragraph 89 (NPPF) states that a local planning authority should regard the construction of new buildings as inappropriate. Exceptions to this are:

  • buildings for agriculture and forestry;
  • appropriate facilities for outdoor sport, outdoor recreation, cemeteries and burial grounds and allotments;
  • the extension or alteration of a building provided that it does not result in disproportionate additions over and above the size of the original building;
  • the replacement of a building, provided the new building is in the same use and not materially larger than the one it replaces;
  • limited infilling in villages; limited affordable housing for local community needs under policies set out in the development plan (including policies for rural exception sites); and
  • limited infilling or the partial or complete redevelopment of previously developed land, whether redundant or in continuing use (excluding temporary buildings).

Current policy governing Green Belt is essentially binary; a single-issue designation which predates and does not align with current evidence-based national planning policy which is all based on the principle of the ‘planning balance’, weighing up benefits and harm.

Green Belt policy removes the presumption in favour of sustainable development set within national planning policy and instead starts with a presumption against the vast majority of sustainable development proposals unless ‘very special’ circumstances can be proved. A stiff challenge and one that adds significant time and cost to planning applications.

Added to this, our experience of working around the country shows us that Green Belt policy and its associated tests are inconsistently applied by local planning authorities with planning officers regularly associating a range of issues with Green Belt designation such as character, landscape, environmental quality and expectations around rights of access for local people. It will come as a surprise to many that there is no legal definition of ‘openness’, the key factor which policy directs us to assess when considering applications.

This confusion and inconsistency matters; because Green Belts are so far reaching – they affect a lot of land and businesses; there are 14 areas of Green Belt in England which collectively extend across 1.65 million hectares, a figure which equates to 12.5% of England’s land area.

They cover huge parts of local territories. For example, it is possible to travel from West Kirkby on the north western tip of the Wirral peninsula and drive to the east of Wilmslow, to the south of Manchester, a journey of 51 miles, without ever leaving the Green Belt.

Time for a change

Our proposal is that the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which is at the heart of national planning policy, should be reinstated for proposals relating to rural economic development and farm and estate diversification proposals in the Green Belt.

This change would not be a ‘green light’ for unfettered development but would simply mean that all such proposals be considered on the same basis regardless of whether the site is in Green Belt or not. Each proposal would be considered on its merits and judged against the criteria set out in the adopted local plan and national planning policy (paragraphs 28 and 55 would be particularly relevant).

The requirement to maintain and preserve openness within the Green Belt would not apply nor would the ‘very special circumstances’ test.

There would however be an additional requirement for proposals within areas designated as Green Belt that the applicant demonstrates how the proposal respects and is consistent with the five purposes of Green Belt set out in national planning policy (paragraph 80).

It is our expectation that most of rural development and diversification proposals which in are found to represent sustainable development (when judged against extant local and national planning policy) will meet this test.

To be clear, our proposed approach would reduce the weight attached to the restrictive criteria set out in paragraph 89, giving primacy instead to the enabling objectives of paragraph 28 of the Framework.

A further proviso could be applied that where any inconsistency (with the five purposes) was found, the applicant would be invited to demonstrate how harm arising from this inconsistency can be offset by agreeing to provide defined enhancements to the remaining Green Belt land in his / her ownership, so helping the local planning authority meets its responsibilities set out in national planning policy currently paragraph 81 NPPF.

These changes would make the determination of small proposals for economic diversification in the Green Belt consistent with the ‘planning approach to decision making’ enshrined in the remainder of national planning policy.

There would however, be a need for common sense, and perhaps formal guidance around the matter of ‘safeguarding the countryside from encroachment’. An issue which presumable relates to the potential outward growth of urban areas rather than the incremental and proportionate growth of farm steadings and rural settlements but capable of misinterpretation none the less.

This approach would be consistent with that set out in draft, revised NPPF relating to plan led changes in Green Belt boundaries (paragraph 137) and align well with the approach taken to development proposals which affect, but cause less than substantial harm, to heritage assets (see NPPF paragraphs 133 and 134).

Our proposals represent a small shift in approach within the context of existing policy and in no way threaten the core purposes of Green Belt. We recommend them to policy makers and hope that others will see their merit. Perhaps, if nothing else, they can help to generate a grown up debate around the real impact of Green Belt policies on those there were originally intended to help protect.

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