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Underfunded planning departments restricting housing options

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

On Thursday, the government approved outline planning permission to build 1,000 new homes in Tamworth, Staffordshire.The catch? “The only dis-benefit identified is the loss of lower value agricultural land,” the decision officer said in a letter.

To build the 300,000 homes a year the government says are required by the middle of the next decade, councils may have to take the advice of London mayor Sadiq Khan and “rip up old planning rules”.

But with the growing pressure to build at an accelerated rate, important questions have re-emerged over the green belt.

LGC revealed on Friday that the proportion of new homes built in the green belt in 2016-17 doubled year-on-year to 4% of total. Or, in the words of an MHCLG spokesperson: “96% were built on non-green belt land.”

The spokesperson pointed to a draft of the revised National Planning Policy Framework, which gives councils “more tools to build the homes their communities need” while “reinforcing” green belt safeguards.

This new draft framework specifies that affordable housing should be prioritised on land “which has been previously-developed or which is well-served by public transport” - even on the sacred green belt.

MHCLG data shows that around half of the new homes on the green belt were built on previously developed land. As a proportion however, that number decreased from 57% of all new green belt homes in 2015-16 to 51% in 2016-17.

Epping Forest DC built the highest proportion (43%) of new homes on the green belt, according to MHCLG data.

However, located on the outskirts of east London, 93% of the district is located in the green belt, with a council spokesperson insisting Epping Forest takes protection of green belt land “very seriously”.

A spokesperson for Epping Forest DC said: “With so much demand for new homes and so little space outside the green belt, it is important to take a sensible approach to these sites when the opportunities arise.”

According to analysis by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), developers built on 3,332 hectares of green belt land in 2017 - a 58% increase on 2014.

CPRE also argues that councils should be looking to develop more brownfield land to protect England’s countryside.

According to Homes England chief executive Nick Walkley, that might require councils to look once again at their relatively new brownfield registers.

Mr Walkley told LGC in March: “There is a correlation between councils who have filled out the brownfield registers well and those with a strong traction of who is building in the local area - [understanding] who are the SMEs and who is building. The registers create good options for councils.”

These brownfield registers, when compiled well, create an invaluable database of land available that can help invigorate the local SME sector.

Councils with well-researched brownfield registers can shift focus from problematic green belt development and improve options for regeneration.

Yet, rather predictably, the problem appears to lay with underfunded planning departments.

As the consultancy firm Future Cities warns, some planning authorities “do not currently have the incentives, resources or skills to make engaging local plans”.

Rob Cusack, reporter

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