Why is Elmbridge Reviewing the Green Belt?
The answer is simple – the national government has changed planning law and Elmbridge has to respond to the various changes.
This costs money and effort which could otherwise be used to improve or extend services or reduce council tax for the people of Elmbridge but unlike like the British government, under our unwritten constitution, Elmbridge is not sovereign so we have to comply with the wishes of the unrepresentative Westminster government (supported by only 37% of the popular vote). Ultimately, its army is bigger than ours.
New National Planning Laws
In 2012 the national government introduced a radical change in planning law called the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It replaced all previous laws, rules and regulations relating to planning in England. This caused upset across the planning profession and local government too. There was a distinct possibility that over sixty years of planning practice would be comprehensively trashed. As problems with the NPPF were exposed, the national government introduced explanatory guidelines for local government to explain its thinking. This process could not happen overnight. In fact, it continues through to today and the national government has indicated that more changes are on the way.
How does that affect Elmbridge?
In 2012, it became possible that developers could apply for planning permission and if Elmbridge refused planning permission the developer could win on appeal because the national government’s planning inspectors would use the new NPPF as the basis of their decision not Elmbridge’ policies.
As the dust settled, Elmbridge quickly reviewed all of its own adopted planning policies and associated documents to ensure that they complied with the new laws. Some of Elmbridge’s planning policies only came into force a few months before the publication of the NPPF and were considered compliant with the new NPPF. Where there was doubt about whether Elmbridge policies were complaint with the NPPF the process of change was put in place. For the moment, Elmbridge’s Green Belt policy was considered safe. Despite this, all Elmbridge policies adopted before the NPPF were reviewed on a regular basis to check their compliance. Not least because the national government was continually introducing new guidances and rules.
Elmbridge’s Housing Requirements
There are many things that the British government requires Elmbridge to do before the borough can set its own plan for Elmbridge. One of these is an assessment of the need for housing in Elmbridge – both in terms of the number of new houses (or flats) and their size. In requiring Elmbridge to assess its housing need, the national government did not say how it should be done or what should be considered but it did require that Elmbridge was objective in its assessing housing need (OAN). Nevertheless, Elmbridge must produce a figure for the number of new homes required by 2035. Elmbridge has published its Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) and the independently derived figure is 9,450 new homes – about the same number of households currently in Weybridge. This new figure is over twice the number produced by Elmbridge’s previous SHMA. The borough’s current local plan does not cater for such a large increase in houses in Elmbridge – a new local plan is required.
More housing changes ahead
Although originally the national government allowed local government to provide their objectively assessed housing need using their own methodology, it now states that there must be one nationally set method for assessing need. When the national government introduces this new method sometime in the future (date unknown) Elmbridge will have to undertake a new OAN. This could mean that our current figure of 9,450 new households could be substantially increased (or it could fall but that is less likely).
What would happen if the borough did nothing?
It is very likely that many, if not all, of Elmbridge’s planning decisions will be overturned by the national government. For example, the recent planning application 2016/2217 for a development of over 1,000 houses, known as Drake Park, between Walton and Molesey, on a large area of green belt. This was robustly refused by the borough at a meeting on 21 November 2016. It is likely that the developers will take this to appeal, and one of the main reasons the borough’s decision might be upheld is because we are preparing a revised local plan.
If we do nothing, the national government will declare Elmbridge’s current local plan policies non-compliant with the NPPF and take over planning decisions, which would mean a free-for-all for developers. As a result (and this has already happened in some areas of the country), all refusals by Elmbridge borough of planning permission, when taken to appeal, would almost inevitably be allowed by the national government’s planning inspectorate.
Furthermore, in those circumstances the costs will almost inevitably have to be borne by Elmbridge local tax payers by means of higher council tax and/or reduced services. Such applications would be judged only against the NPPF without any reference to any local planning policies or guidelines. If the borough develops a revised local plan there will be particular local policies which would have to be applied in addition to those in the NPPF. That is what the current Strategic Options Local Plan consultation is all about.
What is Green Belt?
Many people think that the Green Belt is countryside and the countryside is Green Belt. Nationally, most of the countryside is not designated Green Belt and in Elmbridge we have many buildings in the Green Belt: offices, houses, schools, colleges, oil depots, sport halls, shops, stations, hotels and more. Much of the Green Belt is private and the average person may not walk in it or even see it at a distance.
Much of Elmbridge’s countryside is already protected by planning law: sites of special scientific interest, sites of nature conservation importance, conservation areas, local nature reserves, strategic views, ancient woodlands, flood plains, areas of special historic interest and Whiteley protection among other protections. Often these create greater protection than Green Belt.
But for Elmbridge Green Belt is very important. Its main function is to stop the coalescence of our towns. In this regard, it has mainly succeeded. There are fourteen possible coalescence corridors within Elmbridge – the perceived experience of leaving a town entering the countryside and entering the neighbouring town: five are well protected, six are reasonably protected (but could be better) and three have no countryside between them (Weybridge-Walton, Walton-Hersham and Ditton-Molesey). Externally, Ditton has no countryside between it and Surbiton.
In the south of the borough the Green Belt has another role: that of giving a sense of open country – although this is not specifically mentioned in the NPPF.
How do we plan for this number of new houses?
More than half of Elmbridge is covered by Green Belt and as we know, most of the rest of the area has been increasingly urbanised, many would say to capacity. About 3,500 houses could be probably be built on sites which are known about or allowed for (that is, sites which have been identified by developers and interested parties, allowance for ‘windfall’ sites, backland development etc). That leaves a shortfall of around 6,000 (the same number incidentally as the ‘affordable’ or social housing which is needed within the borough). Where are we going to find the space for all these houses?
If we leave the Green Belt entirely untouched we will have to consider more intensive development in existing urban areas, for example, replicating what is going to happen in Kingston and other parts of London, and building upwards. Are we happy to have multi-storey blocks of flats in our towns, thus altering the character of our area while we leave land designated Green Belt (some of which may not be particularly attractive) untouched? The additional houses will have to go somewhere. The borough is required by the national government to review and consider the Green Belt when updating the local plan to take account of the increased assessed housing need.
On the other hand, we could cater for the extra 6,000 households until 2035 by building sixteen town centre housing developments similar in size to the Heart in Walton: two in each of the borough’s towns and one each in Claygate and Oxshott. In this case, no Green Belt will be touched and, physically, 95% of the borough would remain no different but there will be infrastructure consequences whatever we do.
Elmbridge’s Green Belt Consultation
The national government’s view on housing assessments.
National Policy on the Green Belt