The Green Belt is back in the news. DCLG has updated the NPPG, and included responses to two further questions that “interpret” the Green Belt policy in the NPPF. In substance, neither additional paragraph makes any real contribution to our understanding of the policy in the NPPF.
However, the Ministerial statements that introduce the additions to the NPPG have given the impression that Green Belt policy has been tightened and that greater favour is now being given to brownfield land. That is wrong. There is no change of policy. Ministers should stop pretending that that is the case.
In any event, as the Court of Appeal has just found the Green Belt is already well protected. In the Redhill case Lord Justice Sullivan responded to a suggestion that Green Belt policy had changed in the NPPF by saying:
“… far from there being an indication that placing the presumption in favour of sustainable development at the heart of the framework is intended to effect a change in Green Belt policy, there is a clear statement to the contrary.”
This was in the context of batting away, and overturning, an odd High Court decision. Redhill aerodrome is a potential development site in the Green Belt. An inspector had concluded that the proposed development would harm the Green Belt, would cause other harm, and that that was not outweighed by the acknowledged benefits of development. In the High Court, the Judge was asked to interpret paragraph 88 of the NPPF which sets the policy on the very special circumstances that need to be demonstrated to justify development in the Green Belt. Paragraph 88 says:
“Very special circumstances will not exist unless potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations.”
In the High Court, the phrase “and any other harm” was said to relate only to other Green Belt harms and that non Green Belt harms should be ignored. The Court of Appeal firmly rejected this notion, saying that it would be an unfair balance. The Court held that the proper test was whether the harm to the Green Belt together with any non Green Belt harms were clearly outweighed by the benefits of the development.
That approach is, self evidently, correct. It also gives confidence that when faced with applications the Green Belt will continue to be protected where it deserves to be and where the harm is not clearly outweighed by benefits. In the same way, the Green Belt is also protected in the local plan process by a proper interpretation of the NPPF. DCLG should have confidence in the NPPF as written, rather than seeking to reinterpret it by way of Ministerial statements.
The best way to secure the Green Belt is ultimately to plan in a way that clearly meets needs, accepting the exception cases when land will need to be released and creating new long term boundaries that will shape the patterns of cities for the next 30/50 years – pretty much the approach advocated today by the Centre for Cities.