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Protecting the Green Belt from Urban Sprawl

About The Author

Former Author (Assistant Editor)

Author is a King's College London Law graduate, currently working as a corporate paralegal for a firm based in South West England. Author is due to begin his BPTC at the University of Law in September 2015, having attained a scholarship from Middle Temple.

Guidance released by the government this month has sought to reaffirm the policy of protecting the green belt in the UK, but recent trends show that more must be done to ensure that we do not lose one of the major triumphs of planning and environmental law in this country. Many of the largest cities in Europe, notably Paris and Athens, expanded rapidly during the industrial revolution and were allowed almost complete freedom to devour the surrounding countryside in a process known as ‘urban sprawl’. In contrast, the United Kingdom has a long history of protecting the areas surrounding our major towns and cities, with Elizabeth I first commending the idea as a way to prevent the spread of the bubonic plague in 1580.

The green belt as we know it was first formally enshrined in law in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 and bolstered further by guidance released in 1962. A presumption was created whereby it had to be proved that the benefits of proposed development outweighed the benefits provided by the maintenance of the greenbelt. This has proven to be a major preventative measure against development on such areas, but with the need to build new houses ever increasing to keep pace with rising population, the green belt is coming under renewed pressure.

In the last decade there has been a dramatic effort to decentralise the planning process, giving local councils greater freedom to control land use in their areas through the use of local plans under the umbrella of the National Planning Policy Framework ("NPPF"). However, there are major concerns, in a time of heavy cuts to public expenditure, whether councils are willing to protect and maintain the green belt when developers are willing to pay huge sums to build there. The statement by Eric Pickles, the Minister for Communities and Local Government, which preceded the publishing of the new guidance, was that it would dictate:

... [H]ow councils should use their local plan, drawing on protections in the NPPF to safeguard their local area against urban sprawl and protect the green lungs around towns and cities. 

The new guidance 

The guidance released by the government deals with the way in which councils can exercise their powers as the local planning authority. Generally, planning permission is granted for specific developments if it firstly adheres to the objectives and requirements of the local plan and secondly to the broader objectives of the NPPF. Principles included in both of these frameworks, such as the need to ensure sustainable development, are legally required and councils are open to judicial review if it seems that a local plan or a particular decision has fallen foul of these considerations. For a recent example, see the legal action being taken against Stafford Borough Council over their newly adopted local plan.

The first major implementation of the guidance is that there has been a reaffirmation of the boundaries of the green belt around our towns and cities by stating that they may only be changed through the process of altering the local plan as a whole. The intention is that modification of the plan is a lengthy process requiring a high level of public participation through consultation, providing communities with the chance to recognise that their rural areas are under threat of development.

In addition to firming up the boundaries, the presumption against development within the greenbelt has been bolstered, with the guidance setting out that it will only be in ‘very special circumstances’ that development will be approved. This dual approach means that it is harder to develop on the greenbelt areas, and that it is equally difficult to re-designate land as available for development and remove the green belt protections.

Although these changes are welcome, the government could still do more to relieve the chronic shortage of housing in the United Kingdom through various other initiatives, with a greater emphasis on smarter, more efficient use of urban areas and also tackling the problem of under-occupancy in many areas of our major cities.

Current trends in house-building and the housing crisis

It is an oft-repeated fact that the number of houses being built each year in the UK falls well below demand; in 2012/2013 the UK built the lowest number of homes since 1923 with only 108,000 homes completed, and it is estimated that we need to build at least double that amount just to keep up with demand. There are many causes for the current housing shortage in the UK, but one of the key reasons for the lack of affordable housing is the ‘Right to Buy’ policy of Margaret Thatcher and the actions of subsequent decades. 

The Right to Buy was one of the most popular policies of the Thatcher government, giving tenants of state-owned properties the ability to buy their home at a price heavily discounted on market value. Although this enabled millions to take up ownership of property, it had the dual effect of disincentivising councils from building houses and increasing the liquidity of the housing market. Increased liquidity is to be welcomed in principle as it affords more people the power to own their home and fits with the free market capitalist system in which we find ourselves. However, when coupled with a massively constricted long-term supply it has caused a sustained increase in house prices, making the prospect of a “nation of home owners” a mere pipe dream. In fact, in the last 40 years, the average price of a home has gone from triple to seven-times the average salary.

Location, Location, Location

Due to the lack of house building where demand is greatest, most notably in the major urban areas of London, Manchester and Birmingham, the greenbelt land has come under increased pressure, as councils are desperate to increase its housing stock and have been guilty of allowing a creeping increase in approvals. Recent figures released by construction industry experts Glennigan show that development on greenbelt land has increased significantly since the economic downturn in 2008: 

Last year saw the approval of 5,600 new homes on the greenbelt, compared to just 2,260 in 2009/10, a 148% increase over the five-year period.

Paul Miner, on behalf of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, understands Glennigan’s report as solid evidence as to the recurring and worrying demise of greenbelt policy. The National Trust has expressed similar concerns in the past. According to a statement provided last year, the National Trust are concerned that councils are showing little interest in safeguarding greenbelt land and simultaneously overlooking the possibility of brownfield development. Brownfield sites are former industrial areas that have become inactive and require some form of remedial measure to be undertaken in order to make them fit for residential use.

As can be seen by the recent redevelopment in London, from the Isle of Dogs in the East to Battersea in the West, brownfield sites are a feasible and altogether more sustainable way to develop our towns and cities from within rather than needing to extend their reach further into the surrounding green landscape. The costs of these redevelopment projects are often borne by the developers through the means of ‘section 106 obligations’. The power to impose these obligations are found in s. 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act (“TCPA”) 1990, allowing local planning authorities to approve planning applications with the caveat that the developer must undertake to pay for or provide a further benefit to the community, for instance through improving the infrastructure, or building a recreational area into the plans.

These planning obligations are used extensively for major developments and are intended to alleviate any of the possible detriments caused to the local area. However, these obligations are often the subject of extensive negotiations between the developers and the council and can be watered down significantly or levied against the council as a bargaining tool. As local councils are more reliant on private developers to ensure houses are built in their area, they are at a significant disadvantage when conducting these negotiations. For example, a major development named ‘One the Elephant’ in Southwark is not subject to the 35% affordable housing threshold as required by the Southwark Local Plan as the developers managed to negotiate away from this by providing payments, as can be required under s. 106 agreements due to the powers afforded by s. 106(12) TCPA 1990. It is difficult to find fault with the council in this instance as the development is necessary to increase available residences, but this highlights that each possible solution to our housing crisis has its difficulties. Nonetheless, the payments procured from such section 106 agreements, commonly known as the ‘community infrastructure levy’, are used by councils to fund future housing projects. This is obviously of great benefit to the councils as these payments are surplus to their budgets provided by central government, but it must be ensured that developers are not able to use these levies as a bargaining chip to contract out of their obligations within the existing planning framework.

The Way Forward

Despite the protection afforded by the recently released guidance, the greenbelt will undoubtedly continue to come under increased pressure for development and therefore it is vital that the government do more to incentivise innovative development within the existing boundaries of our towns and cities.

Despite not being a specifically environmental or planning-related policy, one way to make more effective use of land within the UK would be to increase occupancy rates, especially in our larger urban areas. A staggering 635,127 homes were officially empty in England in 2013 according to figures released by Empty Homes, a charity aimed at reusing empty houses. There are several reasons why properties may become empty, but one of the most prevalent reasons within cities is because land is bought purely as an investment rather than as a dwelling. The most lurid example of the practice of purchasing land purely as an investment would be the so called “billionaires row” in London. A recent article in the Guardian highlighted that a third of the mansions on the street were in fact empty and derelict to the point of near collapse.

I believe that an attitude shift in how we view property is required before this practice is to be completely solved, but one way in which it could be tackled is through introducing an under-occupancy tax or “mansion tax” as proposed by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats. Property taxes have been longstanding in the United States and are a useful way to prevent land stagnation. For example, in one county in New York, the average homeowner pays over $14,000 a year, and some properties are subject to even higher rates. The imposition of taxes for high value properties or those that are declared empty would either encourage investors to ensure that the properties were rented out to tenants to offset the tax liability or disincentivise them from purchasing in the first place.

In relation to developers, a more radical alternative to solving the housing shortage was proposed by the Labour party in 2013. It was suggested that developers who did not commence building on land which had approved planning permission within a certain period would be either subject to compulsory purchase of the land by the government or have to pay substantial fees.

These proposals are of course more radical than the government have hitherto implemented, but the lack of any increase in building rates and the worrying erosion of the greenbelt mean that these proposals must be given serious consideration. There are several areas in London which suffer the effects of high levels of under-occupancy and the benefits would extend into the local community as more residents means higher local business revenues and more taxes being paid. In my opinion, an approach that uses taxation rather than actual interference with property rights of individuals, as recently advocated by the Labour party, is a far more palatable solution. This approach would mean that there was no need to interfere with the property rights of the individual through a process of compulsory purchase or other radical methods.


The Prime Minister promised in the campaign preceding his election in 2010 that his government would be the ‘greenest government yet’, and it is important that the government takes the threat to our greenbelt seriously and considers all available options in its protection. The historic laws that protect our green belt have come under renewed pressure as developers and local councils seek to alleviate the chronic shortage of housing, but there are several innovative means that could be used rather than relying purely on the discretion of local planning authorities to approve or deny certain developments.

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Tagged: Commercial Law, Environmental Law

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