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‘Our towns must expand to thrive’: Shropshire Council says green belt homes are a necessary evil

The prospect of building on the county’s green belt has provoked significant criticism – but Shropshire Council says it is ready to defend the plans as the best way of tackling issues faced by towns.

Plans for thousands of homes in Shropshire are vital to stop the decline of communities and ensure controlled development.

That is the message given today by the man in charge of a ‘preferred sites’ consultation for work up until 2036.

Shropshire Council planning expert Adrian Cooper says the plan for 28,750 new homes is the only way to protect communities from speculative developers, and to prevent towns falling into decline.

He said: “There is a reason – we are not just doing this because we want to upset people. We are doing it to stave off a worse outcome.”

All of Shropshire’s towns and villages feature in the plan, which varies from the modest to the large scale plans for hundreds of homes in both Shifnal and Bridgnorth.

Mr Cooper, the council’s planning policy and strategy manager, said that the impact of a lack of affordable housing was affecting communities across the county, and particularly Bridgnorth, and having a knock on effect on employers and the availability of jobs.

He said: ““If we do not make provision for business to remain and grow and expand and attract and retain employees then they will move and that’s really harmful because it exacerbates existing issues you have in towns like Bridgnorth.”

Green belt homes ‘a necessary evil’

Campaign groups in Bridgnorth and Shifnal have been outraged by Shropshire Council plans for development, with sections of green belt earmarked for future development and the prospect of more than 28,000 new homes.

Permission to build on the green belt is only allowed in exceptional circumstance – something campaigners have insisted does not exist – but a senior council official has moved to defend the plans, particularly in relation to Bridgnorth.

Under Shropshire Council’s preferred sites consultation, land across the county is allocated for where houses and businesses can built up until 2036. The plans are yet to be fully approved by the council and there will be another round of consultation.

It also needs to be approved by a government inspector.

For Bridgnorth a large section of green belt at Stanmore is being allocated for development after 2036, and areas are also included in Shifnal.

The choice has sparked a strong reaction from campaigners who have vowed to resist the proposals.

Mr Cooper said: “In both Shifnal and Bridgnorth the difficulties for some areas is it is in the green belt – somewhere people do not expect to see development and it is more difficult to justify that outcome.

“We say in both cases there is a strong argument in the case of intervention because if you do not do something there are some real risks those places will decline, lose employment opportunities, housing will decline and a whole section of the community risks being disenfranchised over decades.”

Asked about the attitude towards building on the green belt Mr Cooper said: “The way government policy works is no, you should not be looking at it.

“We need to produce good reasons and evidence to justify the outcome.”

Policy will help prevent decline

The planning manager said the council believes the policy is necessary to prevent the decline of the area.

He also said other options for providing the housing in other areas had been looked at and discounted.

He said: “Local circumstances are such that if we do not do something that is being proposed, in effect that outcome justifies the change because you can already see evidence of negative impact, of businesses relocating, local employers being restricted, wage level being relatively poor, affordable housing being limited and all of the social outcomes that come from those changes.

“You could take it and put it in another town. Shrewsbury or a different set of sites that are not in the green belt. What we are saying is we have looked at those options and this is, as far as we are concerned, the best way to tackle the issues Bridgnorth faces in the long term. And we therefore think it is justified to do that. We accept there will be differences of opinion and expect there to be.”

Mr Cooper also said there was pressure from local employers over the need to provide homes for potential workers – a claim which has been questioned by Bridgnorth campaigners.

He said: “In particular in Bridgnorth, local employers are really struggling to retain employees. There are not houses for people on the wages they pay.”

Asked if companies had come forward to raise their concern Mr Cooper said: “Yes, through things like the chamber of commerce and the LEP, these are what spurred the concerns.

“This is an issue that pertains to the local economy in Bridgnorth

“We have had a situation in recent years where we have lost businesses, they have chosen to relocate into Telford or the West Midlands because either they could not get enough space to expand and they needed the space to stay where they were.

“Part of that mix is also access to staff, and it is a bit of a vicious circle and has informed why we have chosen to intervene in the way we have with the local plan.

“Because if we do not make provision for business to remain and grow and expand and attract and retain employees then they will move and that’s really harmful because it exacerbates existing issues you have in Bridgnorth which are about limited employment opportunities for a town of its size and people travelling out of town for work.”

Mr Cooper also said that some of the development which has taken place in Shifnal is the result of not having a plan, and that they are seeking an organised approach to ensure associated infrastructure is built.

He said: “Much of the development in Shifnal now was not planned. It was not in the local development plan. It happened because you do not have five years of housing land set aside so the industry was able to argue it should be able to build on land in Shifnal that had not been allocated for that purpose.”

Source: Shropshire Star

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Redefining the green belt to tackle the UK’s housing crisis

Mention the words ‘green belt’ and most people will conjure up romantic images of rolling fields, fresh air and luscious countryside. It is what we dream of as we rush down overcrowded concrete streets, but the reality of England’s green and pleasant land is far different and the green belt is in urgent need of redefining. By lifting self-imposed planning restrictions and building on the least attractive and lowest amenity parts, we could remove the shackles on the UK’s severe housing crisis.

Britain is in the midst of a dangerous housing shortage. Homelessness is on the rise, with over 77,000 households living in temporary accommodation last year and the limited housing we do have is unaffordable due to rising rent prices, falling wages and a stagnant construction industry. This is exacerbated by stringent planning constraints, which drive house prices up by restricting the land available for development – one recent study found that an oppressive planning system increases house prices by 35%.

Experts suggest that we need up to 300,000 additional homes to be built every year. The question, then, is how we can generate the homes we so urgently need when there is not enough available land on which to build them.

Should such strict planning barriers remain in place, a growing population will continue to be confined to smaller and smaller homes, and the government will be forced to carry on spending upwards of £2 million a day on temporary accommodation for the homeless  – simply because no housing is available.

So does building on the green belt offer a solution? Certainly, it is a politically and socially sensitive subject. However, the green belt itself is actually a somewhat arbitrary designation – and a significant portion of the land within it is not actually green.

In fact, a sizeable element of the ‘green’ belt is actually brownfield land with little or no environmental value. That means that disused petrol stations, warehouses, railway sidings and scrubland are all designated green belt land despite, firstly, not being green, and secondly, having little to no purpose for communities. The hedgerows, fields and woodlands that we associate with the green belt are typically protected areas of outstanding natural beauty or ancient woodlands meaning that they, rightly so, remain untouched.

There are claims that maintaining the green belt is necessary to prevent urban sprawl and protect the environment. But while the environmental benefits of undeveloped land are plentiful, there are a number of problems associated with maintaining the green belt in its current form.

Over a third of it is devoted to intensive farming and by forcing developments to be in areas further away from cities and towns, car use and travel is boosted and commutes lengthened. The system also encourages further urban densification, taking green space away from the city dwellers who value it most and putting pressure on local parks due to harsh urban containment policies.

The nation has a preoccupation and nostalgic attachment to green spaces and a misunderstanding of how much green land there really is. One in ten English adults thinks that 75% or more of the country is already effectively built on. In reality, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), England has one of the lowest levels of built environment per capita in the whole of the European Union (EU), behind only the Netherlands and Cyprus, with only 2% of the UK being concreted over, and 98% being classed as natural land.

This has finally led to suggestions that the green belt is redefined and opened up to development by lifting some of the planning restrictions currently in force. Strategically located developments on green belt land could be critical in enabling an increased supply of houses, evening out land use and affordability so that homes are built in the right places, closer to major cities with the supporting jobs and infrastructure.

Such jobs and infrastructure could take the form of new schools, shops, community centres, GP surgeries or hospitals, all of which would help take pressure off green belt communities and the cities around which they exist.

In July, the government published the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which referenced that councils may lose some of their powers to control development if house building falls below 75% of government targets.

While concerns have been expressed that developers might try to “game” the government’s new NPPF, by sitting on land to slow down the rate of development, triggering a relaxation of planning rules – how justified they are is debatable.

Developers have little interest in slowing down development of housing projects, as has been suggested, in order to force councils into allowing them to build on green belt plots. Delays would most likely affect the profits of larger developers, most of whom are responsible for the vast majority of house building in the UK and lead to objections from shareholders.

The stated intention of the new NPPF is actually to require higher environmental standards of house builders while protecting green belt land and ensuring that houses are being built on time.

To truly combat the failing housing market, we need to make sure we are building the right homes, in the right places. And while no-one wants to see property developments in the wrong places it is equally true that not all green belt land needs to be kept free from any development at all.

Analysis by estate agency Hamptons found that building on green belt land around 80 railway stations could provide 509,000 homes across Britain, and a recent study by the Adam Smith Institute stated that one million people could be housed by developing on 3.7% of London’s green belt areas close to existing commuter stations, with potential for a further three million new homes by building on less than 5% of green belt land in the ten least affordable UK cities.

It is crucial, however, that people can actually afford to buy these houses. Currently, promoting affordability does not seem to be the direction developers are moving towards: according to a CBRE report, 2017-18 alone saw 460,000 houses planned for the green belt – of which close to 80% were unaffordable. Developing yet more luxury projects, which often remain unoccupied, will do little to ease the housing crisis as people remain priced out of owning a permanent home.

Clearly, a fine balance needs to be struck, between preserving the best of the green belt, while also thinking creatively about how to solve the UK’s housing crisis. Currently, it shows no signs of abating and the country is in serious need of affordable homes. The weight of evidence suggests it is on England’s brown, unpleasant lands that we could find them.

Source: Open Access Government