Green Belt Policy Explained
In our latest blog, David Bedford shares his thoughts on Green Belt policy and discusses some of DHA's recent successes
As a planner who started my career at a Green Belt planning authority, I have always been fascinated by the Green Belt designation and the nuances of Green Belt policy. From an early stage I always struggled to rationalize the idea that a new building is perfectly acceptable for agricultural purposes, but that the same building, in the same location, storing the same machinery requires "very special circumstances" (arguably the highest bar in planning) if it were to be proposed to serve say a commercial landscape business instead. Likewise, I lost track of the times that I saw minor proposals such as dormer windows or porches that would genuinely make real world difference to people’s lives, refused simply because they were deemed to offend Green Belt policy. To me, it was a designation with sound objectives but applied in the most deeply flawed manner.
With my early exposure to Green Belt policy, the thought of major residential or commercial developments being granted on a regular basis was an alien concept. Even now, many landowners and developers treat Green Belt sites with a high degree of caution or pass on them completely.
The fact that in the last six months DHA have secured planning permission for multiple major development proposals in the Green Belt, half of which were secured under delegated powers no less, really is testament to the team's in depth understanding of Green Belt policy and the increased opportunities that have been introduced via the various updates to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
For me the 2012 publication of the NPPF was the landmark moment in Green Belt policy evolution insofar as it introduced the opportunity to redevelop Previously Developed (brownfield) Land (PDL) in the Green Belt. Until this time, such opportunities were restricted only to defined Major Developed Sites.
The 2018 update to the framework (and retained in February 2019) went further and split the brownfield redevelopment provision into two limbs. Indeed, paragraph 145(g) of the NPPF 2019 now makes provision for the limited infilling or the partial or complete redevelopment of previously developed land that would:
- Not have a greater impact on the openness of the Green Belt than the existing development; or
- Not cause substantial harm to the openness of the Green Belt, where the development would re-use previously developed land and contribute to meeting an identified affordable housing need within the area of the local planning authority.
This update radically altered what had come before. It intentionally sets a different and higher threshold for harm to openness when seeking to addressing housing concerns. Under limb (i) the development proposed cannot cause any greater impact on openness than the development which it replaces. Limb (ii) is of a very different nature. It allows harm to openness up to a substantial level – i.e. a high level.
In other words, the importance of affordable housing provision to the Government means that an absolute and high level of harm to openness is acceptable for development which is on PDL and includes affordable housing. This change was specifically made to make it easier to deliver affordable housing even in the Green Belt (on PDL).
As technical as this sounds, the simple reality is that for brownfield sites there is now much greater opportunity to progress development, particularly for housing.
In terms of practical application of national policy, I believe that DHA are one of the leading experts in the field and that this is evident by a number of recent decisions. Recently we have secured full planning consent for 60 new homes for Countryside Properties at the former Harrington’s Horticultural Nursery in Swanley. What made this scheme noteworthy was horticultural uses are, by definition, not brownfield sites. Accordingly, it was for the DHA team to demonstrate to the Council that the lawful use of the site had expanded beyond the horticultural use to a mix of horticulture and commercial and thus rendering it a PDL. We were able to do this successfully and secure a delegated approval for the scheme.
From a commercial perspective, in June planning permission was secured for our client, Hatchery, for the conversion and replacement of a 2,600sqm new rural business work hub at Preston Farm, Shoreham. Hatchery is a new business that seeks to transform old farms and agricultural buildings into high quality flexible workplaces, with a community focus. The company’s ambition for this site is to reimagine the farmstead of yesterday and create a rural campus where everything is designed to support a more wholesome, enjoyable and productive way of working. DHA are delighted to have provided the planning, transport and drainage inputs needed to support this new business and to secure the necessary consents for the company’s first venture.
In addition to the provisions outlined above, DHA have also been successful in two housing schemes permitted under "very special circumstances".
When Fidelity International vacated its state of the art Oakhill House campus, the facilities were so bespoke that ability to secure a new business tenant was an extremely difficult task – the site includes circa 4 storeys of underground parking and data centre. Working firstly with Fidelity directly, and subsequently Berkeley Homes, DHA were able to work with the local planning authority to investigate options for the re-use of the site and demonstrate that the only viable option would be residential re-use. As a consequence, full planning permission was subsequently approved to convert the existing commercial buildings to residential, whilst also including new build homes in carefully planned and well contained pockets. This approval was recognised to be the most suitable re-use of the site, whilst also making a useful contribution to unmet housing need. Combines these matters were tantamount to very special circumstances.
Finally, whilst we seek to avoid appeals unless absolutely essential, we are delighted to have secured planning consent for 26 new homes at Salts Farm, Fawkham following a Public Inquiry in spring 2021. As part of the appeal, the DHA team was able to demonstrate that a lawful care home consent had been implemented and represented a realistic fallback position that must be factored into the decision making process. This fallback, coupled with the evidence presented in respect of an acute unmet market and affordable housing need was so compelling that they combined to create a unique set of very special circumstances.
Whilst these projects are just a small sample of the Green Belt successes we have achieved in recent months, they have all been progressed to successful outcomes because they were built on unique but robust planning strategies informed by those of us informed by years of experience of working in Green Belt areas – who knows, maybe I learned more than I thought from all of those early frustrations?
In addition to our successes, a recent appeal for residential development at Colney Heath provides further food for thought. In this particular case, up to 100 dwellings (45% affordable and 10% self-build) were allowed on a greenfield unallocated site that straddles Welwyn and St Albans Council Areas. In allowing the appeal, the inspector citing very special circumstances due to the acute housing delivery shortages and critical affordable housing need. Whilst it remains to be seen if this will be a standalone and unique decision, or the start of a trend of similar cases, the situation is well worth following given the similar housing positions of authorities in the south east.
To conclude, whilst greenfield development opportunities will always be difficult and best left to the development plan review process, for developed sites, Green Belt policy need not strike fear into landowners and developers in the manner that it once did.
For any further information on any of these case studies, please feel free to contact either myself or a member of the DHA Team.