Green belt development - don't forget the law!

13 February 2017

The Housing White Paper – Fixing Our Broken Housing Market - promises to retain the high protection offered to the green belt, but there are some signs that more land may be opened up for development. For some in London and the Home Counties, however, there is a second hurdle.

It is trite law that planning applications must be determined in accordance with development plans unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Most development plans will state that no development can take place in the green belt unless very special circumstances exist, and that principle is backed up by the National Planning Policy Framework ("NPPF") - a material consideration in the determination of planning applications.

Whilst the White Paper does not seem to make development within the green belt any more likely, it does suggest that there may be opportunities to review the boundaries of such designations. It suggests that the NPPF will be amended to allow "development on brownfield land in the Green Belt, but only where it contributes to the delivery of starter homes and there is no substantial harm to the openness of the Green Belt". Further, "when carrying out a Green Belt review, local planning authorities should look first at using any Green Belt land which has been previously developed and/or which surrounds transport hubs".

 With such a dire need for new housing, we cannot close our minds entirely to the idea that some land currently designated as green belt may be suitable for development. It is worth remembering that green belt land is not necessarily publically available leisure land: it is certainly not all 'green' and even some of that which is offers little by way of environmental value.

A speaker at the NLA's recent debate on the new London Plan (I believe it was Chris Choa, vice president of AECOM) pointed out that 2.5m homes could be accommodated within a mile of an existing train station in the green belt. Green belt reviews which look at land surrounding transport hubs might therefore be very powerful.

However, aside from the above (not insignificant) policy considerations, we should not forget that there is a second hurdle to potential green belt development on some land in Greater London, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Essex, Kent and Berkshire.

The Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938 is an awkward piece of legislation which is still very relevant today (a fact perhaps not recognised by the government which states in its White Paper that the green belt dates from the 1950s). The idea of this legislation was to empower local authorities to acquire land to keep open as green belt. It also provides for an owner to declare that his land shall be deemed to be part of the green belt. Green belt land acquired under this Act by a local authority cannot be sold off without the consent of the Secretary of State. Similarly, Secretary of State consent is needed before building takes place on green belt land covered by the Act. If you are looking at land that falls within the area covered by this Act, it is worth checking whether it is caught by these provisions at an early stage. 


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