Westminster Hall debates give any MP the opportunity to raise local or national issues and receive a response from a government minister. Last week’s Westminster Hall was sponsored by Taiwo Owatemi (MP for Coventry North) in relation to her constituents’ concerns about use of the Greenbelt for new developments. Ms Owatemi asked for a debate on the impact of new developments on Greenbelt land.
There are some striking points to summarise below, raised by participants, and striking points (also noted below) which were not debated and perhaps should have been.
An MP’s perspective and other voices
Ms Owatemi set out their take on the issues in play for meeting the needs of the future in a sustainable way:
- Home ownership has fallen to 65%.
- The process by which houses are built favours large developers, who are not accountable to local communities and often ignore local housing needs.
- Private developers hold the power and are not accountable to anyone, including the national Government.
- Houses need to be built on brownfield sites rather than green sites.
- Population growth is not as high as predicted so is the Greenbelt being torn up unnecessarily.
- Developers can walk away without putting in place proper infrastructure such as GPs, broadband, public transport, etc.
Other participants raised the following issues:
- Local people do not have the input they should;
- Need to strengthen protections of Greenbelt not weaken it for the purpose of building houses;
- No clarity on what the Duty to Co-operate will be replaced with;
- Brownfield land is being used more for businesses than houses;
- Public money is invested into remediation for brownfield sites, whilst private owners land bank and then declare lack of viability;
- Local governments are concerned about the cost of appeals over permissions which skews their decisions;
- 20% VAT penalty on conversion of townhouses whereas 0% for greenfield and newbuilds;
- Disproportionate number of houses being built in certain areas like Rugby; and
- Need more meaningful involvement of the public.
Gavin Williamson MP (for Stafford) emphasised the need to abolish the Duty to Co-operate and central housing targets. Mr Williamson urged reform to the housing market, reform housing supply, protect nature and the environment, as well as the Greenbelt.
The role of speculative development was criticised by several speakers. Presumably this means development on unallocated land, rather than development without an off-plan purchase or forward sale in place.
View from the Minister
The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ (Lee Rowley) responded:
- Overall stated that the Greenbelt is a “hugely important part of our planning system” but flexibility is needed and “If there were simple answers on this…not sure that we would be here today.”
- There are a set of questions which are open and need answering due to the new Government, new Administration, Prime Minister and Secretary of State.
- NPPF makes clear there is a purpose to the Greenbelt, it can only be released in exceptional circumstances, and local authorities, where possible, should look at other options including brownfield land.
- Flexibility is needed but this means a decision has to be made about where best to conclude on these issues and in Lee Rowley’s opinion the local councils are best placed to make this decision.
- It is important to use brownfield land, the NPPF shows this is important and a substantial amount of taxpayer subsidy for brownfield land has been brought forward.
An announcement on the future of the Duty to Co-operate will, Mr Rowley said, come in due course.
A Few Other Things
Greenbelt debate is often so far removed from the origins and purpose of the Greenbelt itself that the form of the conversation rarely reflects the function of the designation. That function is evolving in the popular imagination. And why not? The debate should evolve as a result.
The Westminster debate is revealing – voices all calling for, in essence, far more regulation of land use and a supremely strong state planning function combined with a switch away from speculative development.
This of course means many more planners (to plan) and far more allocation of land (so that growth is planned, not speculative).
In febrile times, this level of cross-party and popular consensus for planning intervention, strong policies, allocated land and talented planners to make it all work should be welcomed.
The form of the system would need to change at the same pace as any new function of Greenbelt. The debate did not cover a few things that are worth debating:
- What is the Greenbelt now cherished for? How do we make it do more of that? What is the price of that? How do we pay for that? Are there trade offs? What are the consequences of that?
- What should England be like in 20, 30 years? How do we plan for that? Who is responsible for that? How we will measure progress? Who is responsible for that? How do we pay for that?
- Without a national or regional spatial plan, what is the Duty to Co-operate there to do? Does it do that?
- Does progress require sacrifice? Does beauty require vision? What will we give from our today for their tomorrow?
It would be good for the debate to be re-run every year and a few more questions asked.
With thanks to Louise Dufour for assistance with this blog.