FT.com wrote:Planning pledge to secure green belts
By John Willman, Business Editor
Published: May 19 2007 03:00 | Last updated: May 19 2007 03:00
A pledge to preserve the green belts that protect the countryside from urban sprawl will be made when the government publishes its long-awaited white paper on streamlining the planning system on Monday.
The document will set out proposals for overhauling planning procedures that have been blamed for long delays in building developments such as Heathrow's terminal 5. New legislation will be introduced within months that will make it easier to build the new nuclear power stations and wind farms that an energy white paper on Wednesday is expected to call for.
However, the government will back away from radical measures on the green belt, saying it plays an essential role in regenerating many large towns and cities and protecting important green space.
The white paper will also commit itself to continuing the "town centre first" approach for retail developments, seen as a key to renewal.
It will announce a further review of the "needs test" that has helped planners block retail development where there is sufficient capacity. Critics see the test as protection for supermarket chains that can block competitors, but conservationists believe it is the most effective defence against out-of-town expansion.
Monday's white paper is the government's response to the report on the planning system by Kate Barker, a member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, published by the Treasury in December.
It alarmed conservationists by challenging the rationale for green belts in a country where only 13 per cent of the land is developed, 31 per cent is in national parks or other protected areas and 13 per cent is in the 14 green belts.
A survey commissioned by Ms Barker found public support for the green belt was based on misunderstandings, such as that they were designed to protect wildlife or areas of natural beauty. When asked what sort of land should be protected from development, only 17 per cent said land on the edge of cities.
Ms Barker said that while some green belts had stopped sprawl and encouraged inner-city development, others had left developers with no choice but to build new homes in villages and market towns. This led to commuting across the green belt to cities such as Oxford and Cambridge, creating emissions that damaged the environment.
While rejecting fundamental changes on green belt policy, the government will encourage cities to review their boundaries where such problems emerge. Local authorities have nibbled away at green belts over the years for particular projects, but the loss has been more than offset by new green belt land since 1997.
Environmentalists will attack any proposal to remove the needs test for new retail developments, which they see as an essential weapon in blocking out- of-town shopping centres and retail parks such as Meadowhall near Sheffield and Birmingham's Merry Hill.
However, retailers have said most new retail development is now inside urban areas and that other planning tests could ensure that new developments did not have an adverse impact on the environment. The Office of Fair Trading has also lobbied for an end to the needs test, which it says stifles competition.
The white paper will back Ms Barker's recommendation that an independent panel of experts should be given responsibility for approving infrastructure projects. They will be guided by government statements on the priorities for sectors such as rail, road, gas, power and water.
University city ready to burst its boundaries
Cambridge is the sort of compact historic city the green belt was intended to protect, yet there has been little opposition to recent plans to expand its boundaries into the surrounding countryside, writes John Willman.
Four areas have now been identified for new homes, university accommodation and a biomedical research park around Addenbrooke's teaching hospital.
The green belt played an essential role in preserving a city never far from the countryside, according to David Roberts, Cambridge's planning policy manager. But it pushed development out to the villages and market towns where there were too few jobs. Their inhabitants "leapfrogged" the green belt, driving into Cambridge to work and shop, creating carbon emissions and congestion.
"There are twice as many jobs in the city as it can house," says Mr Roberts.
The 2006 local plan envisaged increasing the city's 48,000 homes by 6,000 over 10 years. This will be complemented by a new town called Northstowe, to the northwest of the city, with 10,000 homes.
It will be interesting to see the detail