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How long before the belt buckles?

08/02/2007 (source:

A study says developers could build on 'low grade' agricultural land to meet housing needs. Rosalind Russell and Sheila Prophet explain what this means to the commuter's green and pleasant pastures.

Rising London property prices fuelled by a lack of supply means something, soon, will have to go Pop! It looks as though that something might be the Green Belt. Under pressure from the Government (which has to back up its demographic predictions with thousands of new homes) and developers (keen to build on sites which don't require expensive demolition and decontamination), the Green Belt is under great strain.

Some people think it should be abolished altogether. They point to the findings of the Barker Report, published at the end of last year, which claims only 13.5 per cent of England is actually developed, leaving, by implication, plenty of space for more building.

Economist Kate Barker, the key author of the report, says: "The land that can be developed with the least likely environmental or wider social impact is low value agricultural land with little landscape quality and limited public access."

Which is not how the residents of Hatfield and Welwyn see it, faced with the prospect of having 10,000 new homes built on their doorstep. Or the people looking at similar proposals in Oxfordshire, Surrey and Kent.

The Government claims 72 per cent of new housing is built on brown field sites, commonly understood by the public to mean redundant commercial and industrial land. In fact, much of it is built on gardens, which are also classified as brown field. Family houses with big gardens are being flattened all over the Home Counties and blocks of flats built in their place.

Who can blame the owners from taking the developer's money? Especially when, in some cases, they are offered the chance to buy the penthouse flat at a generous discount, meaning they can stay in the area close to their friends. Local authorities are reluctant to fight an appeal by a developer against a planning decision, as it is likely to lose and incur huge costs payable by the tax payer. So the Green Belt has already been comprehensively nibbled at around the edges.

Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells, Greg Clark tried to stop gardens being lumped in with derelict factory sites with a 10 Minute Rule bill in Parliament last year, but it failed. However, the baton has been taken up by MP Caroline Spelman, shadow secretary for Communities and Local Government, whose Private Member's Bill has the same aim.

"More use should be made of brown field sites in towns," says Greg Clark. "The Green Belt is very important and environmentally, we need to make sure we don't have a continuous urban sprawl right across the south of England. The incentives are not there to develop proper industrial sites. Those tend to be bigger - and so would trigger a social housing requirement - or in less attractive parts of town so the developer can't get as much from them." At present, anyone building more than 14 flats has to provide low cost housing too. So developers buy up properties one at a time along a road, building up to 14 apartments on each. In effect they end up with a large development, avoiding the obligation to include the low cost flats.

Ian Marris, head of London Land for estate agents Knight Frank, says he is a fan of the Green Belt but adds that a spot of pragmatism is required. "The planning system is unable to cope. Artificially limiting supply puts pressure on development," he says. "A lot comes down to sensitive design. It's not just flats people want, it's better quality houses. Developers are actively reviewing their plans accordingly."

Meanwhile, the Campaign to Protect Rural England warns the Government's soon-to-be-published White Paper on Planning will take up Kate Barker's proposals. This, they say, could result in a reduction of public involvement in inquiries to speed up major projects, a reduction of people's right to have a say in planning proposals in their area and the Green Belt under threat from more development.

Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said in a written parliamentary statement: "The Government welcomes Kate Barker's report which we will take forward, and agrees with her overall analysis."

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