The Department of Communities and Local Govt (DCLG) has confirmed that Green Belt should be protected, and that housing need doesn’t override Green Belt protection – and they put out a press announcement to say so today (4 October 2014) announcing a formal policy document to be published next Monday (6 October 2014) – so watch this space.
It says: “The Framework makes clear that, once established, green belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances, through the preparation or review of the Local Plan.”
So Green Belt boundaries can’t change until the Local Plan changes.
This is a summary, and update, of what Ministers have been saying in correspondence with our MPs and with the Planning Inspectorate for months – and it is parallel to the dreaded NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework). It really is a clarification of what has been said before. So far, so good.
It is of course currently the case that Inspectors have not always put this into practice.
Guildford Borough Council’s planning officers, and the previous Head of Planning, have said previously that this Ministerial guidance doesn’t matter in practice in preparation of local plans. The Planning Inspectorate then wrote to Nick Boles noting that they didn’t see a change in policy, following very similar advice given early last year (which of course there wasn’t, because Nick Boles was then quoting the NPPF – as commentators should have realised!). But this was misinterpreted by many planning professionals, especially the consultants who make a good living out of the Local Plan process, as therefore meaning that Green Belt protection could still be disregarded on the grounds of housing need. It was wrongly suggested that Nick Boles’ second letter to the planning inspectorate undermined his first. Confused? The planning professionals hope so.
So it is now the job of DCLG to ensure that the Planning Inspectorate listens to this guidance and implements it. Does Ministerial Guidance really matter? It should.
We don’t want any more planning inspectors reviewing planning decisions, or Local Plans, and deciding that on the grounds on housing need they can overrule local decisions and ignore local plan boundaries. DCLG have got to enforce this guidance, if it is real – and it is the responsibility of our MPs to ensure that DCLG hold the inspectorate to account.
An announcement like this is fine – but on its own it is not enough. If Government allow inspectors to push for high housing numbers on Green Belt land anyway it is just greenwashing – it must be enforced. So Inspectors cannot ignore this guidance, and if they do they must be subject to sanction- which is the responsibility of DCLG.No passing the buck, please; if this is the guidance, enforce it. No ifs, no buts.
If the Planning Inspectorate have other rules they have to follow, let us know what these are please, and why they need to be followed. If Government is playing games, and telling us one thing and the Inspectorate another, will the Inspectorate please speak up? The rules must be implemented – isn’t that joined-up government? So please enforce this, DCLG.
So we know now, definitely, that housing need on its own is not sufficient to overrule Green Belt protection. This confirms the legal decisions from the Court of Appeal in relation to St Albans v Hunston and Gallagher Homes v Solihull.
But there is a caveat. Green Belt boundaries can be changed at the discretion of local people, through the process of the Local Plan. That’s why the Local Plan process matters so much.
Our Local Plan in the borough of Guildford is currently under consideration. So we need our councillors to understand that this is clear guidance. All GBC councillors have been sent this announcement this morning (4 October 2014) by us – so they know about it, or they should do.
They are not required to meet the SHMA housing target (whatever that may eventually be, when the wrangling between Waverley, Woking and Guildford is sorted out – and the errors in the ONS statistics, and the flaws in the model, are corrected). When we do have a SHMA number, it will be constrained. Councillors need to know this, and to incorporate this in the Local Plan drafts.
If our local Council doesn’t take this on board, then the Localism provisions mean that the Green Belt gets eroded through the Local Plan and Government washes its hands of responsibility.
So it is important that Councillors choose to amend the local plan. And we need to see a clear change in direction before the next election in May 2015, when our councillors seek re-election.
Councillors must listen to local people – that’s in the NPPF and the Localism Act.
This announcement from DCLG makes it clear that Councillors have the right to ignore objectively assessed housing need, and to apply the constraints arising from Green Belt, AONB, special protection areas, SSSIs etc – and that local decisions override national targets.
So, councillors, please listen to local people, reduce the housing number, and amend the draft local plan as a matter of urgency.
The recent by-election in Lovelace shows the evidence of popular anger at the Local Plan.
Have any councillors driven through the countryside around Guildford, and seen the placards and signs lining so many roads and lanes arguing for protection of the Green Belt – in Worplesdon, Fairlands, Flexford, Send, Ripley, Horsley, Clandon and so many other areas – more than for any one political party?
Councillors – and perhaps MPs – should know they will be replaced at the next election if they aren’t listening.