In last week’s Housing White Paper, the Government reiterated the importance of Green Belt policy and helpfully set out how it expects local authorities to take this into account when reviewing their local plans. But the conundrum facing many councils around London is how they can continue to protect valuable Green Belt and at the same time, meet their housing needs, which is also a priority of government policy.
The debate being held in Elmbridge in Surrey encapsulates this dilemma. Although still at the early stages in the plan preparation process, the Council has concluded that it may well have to release some land from the Green Belt to meet its needs if its neighbours can’t help. Its neighbours, however, are likely to be in the same position.
The Council has undertaken a ‘desk-top’ analysis of its Green Belt which identifies some sites that are considered to be ‘weak’ performing when compared to other areas. The question now facing the Council and its communities is whether these sites should be sacrificed to help meet housing needs or not.
One of the main sites in question is located on the edge of Elmbridge and is one of the few areas left that still fulfils the original purpose of the Metropolitan Green Belt, separating London from the surrounding areas. Anyone driving down the A3 knows when they have left London and entered Surrey because of this bit of land. This reflects the Green Belt generally within the M25 area which has become increasingly fragmented over the years as these areas succumb to development pressures.
So who cares about a scrappy bit of land on the edge of London? Why shouldn’t it be used to meet the housing shortage we are facing in the South East? Why shouldn’t the wealthy Surrey suburbs contribute to meeting these needs? But this misses the point; the Metropolitan Green Belt around London was established for a reason and that reason still exists, according to the Government.
It’s therefore time for a proper debate on this politically contentious and emotive issue. If the Metropolitan Green Belt remains fit for purpose in relation to its original functions and intent, all incremental losses through the local plan process should be resisted. But if the need for more homes in these areas is the overriding factor, and Elmbridge and other local authorities are forced to release the last remaining sites that separate London from the Home Counties, the Green Belt is surely redundant.
There are other answers to meeting housing shortages in the South East. The London Plan review will hopefully expose the main opportunities along strategic transport corridors and ensure that London itself is doing its bit. There are also opportunities to deliver large scale developments in the form of new towns around the South East but this approach will need Government intervention. What the Elmbridge Local Plan clearly demonstrates though is that we can no longer continue with a piecemeal approach to the long term sustainable growth of the Capital and its surrounding areas. A proper, joined-up strategy is needed.