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LGC briefing: Green belt blues

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LGC’s essential daily briefing 

Today’s social care sensation: County to hold 15% tax referendum

The latest voting developments: Minister rules out elections reform bill

Today’s reorganisation rumblings: County unitary proposal unveiled with cross-party support

“The green belt is a Labour achievement and we intend to build on it”, former environment secretary John Prescott is reputed to have once said.

Lord Prescott’s meaning was often less than clear, but communities secretary Sajid Javid was clear enough when he said in November he would “back them all the way” if councils were “willing to take the tough decisions” about building on green belt land.

This may be the only backing they get. The briefest search shows anger reported this week from Stockport to Sevenoaks over proposals for green belt development.

It’s one thing to take “tough decisions” but it’s another to inflame public opinion while opposition parties lick their lips.

Mr Javid’s remarks have led to speculation about the role of green belt in the housing white paper, expected soon.

The green belt was established in 1947 as land, not necessarily of scenic value, that would prevent the urban sprawl common in the 1930s.

Since then, most green belt building proposals – even on brownfield land – have provoked howls of outrage from voters.

Councils may, though, be readier to consider green belts as an alternative to ‘town cramming’ which concentrates development on to already overloaded urban infrastructure.

A Local Government Information Unit survey this month found 58% of councillors in English authorities with green belts thought it likely houses would be built there in the next five years. That result was up from 51% who thought the same in 2013.

It’s unlikely Mr Javid sees green belt development as an end in itself, and more likely that he wants to remove obstacles to increased housebuilding. However, he may need to tread carefully with suburban Tory backbenchers on this.

Just how difficult this might be has been shown by St Albans City & DC and Castle Point BC having local plans rejected by planning inspectors over failing to co-operate with neighbours in planning for housing demand.

St Albans included four green belt sites but could not convince an inspector that it had co-operated acceptably. It has taken legal action against Mr Javid after he endorsed the inspector’s decision.

Castle Point’s plan was rejected for in effect conserving green belt at the expense of neighbouring councils. Chief executive David Marchant said: “Protecting the green belt is more important than providing new housing and [we] wanted this principle to be tested in public by an inspector.” Well, it certainly got that.

Councils that need land because of high housing pressures are likely to be among the most vulnerable to loud public opposition to green belt development due to the demographic make-up of their residents.

The new homes bonus sought to overcome this conundrum with a financial incentive for permitting housebuilding, but Mr Javid’s decision to move money in an attempt to plug the bottomless pit that is social care considerably diminishes its power.

The bonus was supposed to spur councils to boldly allow building. Robbed of that, how will he motivate them?

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