EVENT REVIEW: Strategic Planning and the Green Belt – Thurs 4 Feb 2016

420px-The_Metropolitan_Green_Belt_among_the_green_belts_of_England.svgThe third event in the RTPI London’s Mayoral Election Series tackled what was described by the event chair Christopher Tunnell (Arup) as perhaps the most sacred, but controversial, tenet of UK planning policy – the Green Belt. Sponsored by Arup, this RTPI London event welcomed a sizeable audience and the panel – James Stevens (Home Builders Federation), Paul Miner (Campaign to Protect Rural England), Tom Papworth (Adam Smith Institute) and Catriona Riddell (Catriona Riddell Associates) – to a lively discussion and drinks reception at the Building Centre.

The panel grappled with whether the permanence of the Green Belt be respected and maintained, or whether a wholesale review or entirely different approach should be considered – and if so, what form this should take. Representing diverse organisations, the panelists coalesced around the need for strategic planning concerning the Green Belt. However, they were at odds in their justification and visions for a strategy.

Event Chair Christopher Tunnell acknowledged that the Green Belt has been successful in achieving its aims of preventing urban sprawl, protecting the countryside and encouraging urban regeneration, yet whether it does – or indeed should continue to do so in light of the housing crisis – was a point of contention.

For Paul Miner, the Green Belt must be protected due to its vital and continuing importance as an environmental resource and source of amenity, and more should be done to encourage housing delivery on brownfield sites.

Challenging this, Tom Papworth drew attention to the fact that the Green Belt was conceived at a time when London’s population was shrinking. Today London’s population has surpassed its 1939 peak and an estimated 1.8 million new homes are needed in London and the South East, only 600,000 of which can be accommodated on brownfield sites. He proposed a selective ‘abolish and protect’ strategy for the Green Belt: promoting development in areas with high public transport accessibility whilst protecting some areas against development.

Both James Stevens and Catriona Riddell highlighted how the Green Belt was initially accompanied by pro-growth measures (development elsewhere, such as New Towns) but, reviewing the history of the Green Belt, James Stevens asserted that it has since changed to an environmental constraint. For Catriona Riddell, planning policy must return to a long-term vision of creating communities for the future before taking a stance on the Green Belt.

Whether asserting the Green Belt’s obsolescence or its worth, the panelists’ arguments amount to an endorsement of strategic planning. Paul Miner was concerned that allowing Local Authorities to review Green Belt boundaries is too flexible, whilst James Stevens expressed frustration at the reluctance of Local Authorities to engage with home builders regarding the Green Belt. Local Authorities facing competing demands of protecting the Green Belt and meeting housing provision targets lack the means to plan effectively when the Green Belt is, as Catriona Riddell noted, a ‘Metropolitan’ city-region concern rather than a local concern.

Popular support for the Green Belt gives politicians little incentive to plan strategically – to the extent that James Stevens declared the Green Belt ‘off the political agenda’. The escalating housing crisis and the level of engagement of the event audience – who proposed fiscal incentives for Green Belt development and building over infrastructure to release brownfield land, and expressed concern about the quality of Green Belt development and the phenomenon of land banking, amongst other issues – suggest that this is rapidly changing.

The Green Belt will return to the political agenda – that is clear. But, as our debate demonstrated, the outcome will not be easily agreed upon.

RTPI London would like to thank the panelists, delegates and sponsor Arup for contributing to this engaging discussion. The next event in the London Mayoral Election Series – the inter-professional hustings – is to take place at RIBA on  16th February.

OLIVIA HALPER

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