Developing opportunities

Mary Macpherson looks at the possibilities of redevelopment and infilling at existing developed sites in green belt areas. Mary Macpherson is a barrister at 2 Mitre Court Buildings.

As local authorities plan land-use in edge-of-city locations for the years after the millennium, an important priority is to preserve the green areas that ring the conurbations, while still making provision for housing land.

And since the insertion into the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 of Section 54A (by the Planning, Land and Compensation Act 1991), local plan inquiries and unitary development plan inquiries have needed greater preparation.

The Department of the Environment has also begun scrutinising draft plans more closely – the various regional offices are lodging formal objections where they think policies do not adequately follow the guidance of central government.

So as it becomes more difficult to develop green belt sites, the obvious answer is to encourage the use of brownfield sites in built-up areas. But even where these are available for new building, it is not always realistic to earmark them for housing: town-centre sites in particular may be in demand for other uses essential to economic regeneration.

As a result, the hunt is on for brownfield sites in the green belt. Although, in strict planning parlance, these do not exist, the term “brownfield site” is increasingly being used to describe those green belt sites that can legitimately be given over to housing without conflicting with national policy.

The latest planning policy guidance on green belts (PPG2) was published in January 1995. It restated the importance of green belts and listed six categories of new buildings that can be regarded as appropriate in them, five of which are: buildings for the purposes of agriculture and forestry; essential small-scale facilities for outdoor sport and recreation; cemeteries and other uses of land that preserve the openness of the green belt; limited extensions, alterations or replacements of existing dwellings; and limited infilling in existing villages, together with limited affordable housing for local community needs.

None of these categories offers opportunities for housing development on the scale likely to be required after 2000. But the sixth category, the infilling or redevelopment of existing developed sites, seemed like a lifeline for anxious planners.

Here, at last, it seemed, was a way to make housing redevelopment appropriate in the green belt. But it was only when they started trying to identify those sites that seemed to meet the description that the difficulties in defining them became evident.

PPG2 provides some examples of major developed sites in paragraph C1: they include factories, collieries, power stations, water and sewage treatment works, military establishments, civil airfields, hospitals and research and education establishments. Paragraph C2 says that if a major developed site is specifically identified in an adopted local plan or unitary development plan, “infilling or redevelopment which meets the criteria in paragraph C3 or C4 is not inappropriate development.”

Paragraph C3 deals with infilling on such sites; paragraph C4 deals with their redevelopment. C3 requires that infilling should (a) have no greater impact on the Green Belt than the existing development; (b) not exceed the height of the existing buildings; and (c) not lead to a major increase in the developed proportion of the site.

C4 suggests that redevelopment should have similar aims. It is required (a) to have no greater impact than the existing development on the openness of the green belt, and, if possible, less; (b) to contribute to the achievement of the objectives for the use of land in green belts; (c) not to exceed the height of the existing buildings; and (d) not to occupy a larger area of the site than the existing buildings (unless this would achieve a reduction in height that would benefit visual amenity).

There are three tests that can help to identify major developed sites for the purposes of redevelopment:

the descriptive test: is the site “major” or “substantial”?

the environmental test: would redevelopment achieve environmental improvement and meet the criteria in paragraph C4?

the policy test: are there good policy reasons for redevelopment of the site?

This final test of a site is made necessary by the unreliability and imprecision of the descriptive test. Government guidance is unclear on the definition and I can find no case law. Indeed, the Department of the Environment's regional office has objected to the designation of some sites, even those extending to 4 hectares or more, on the simple ground that they are not “substantial”.

But where land with redundant buildings is required to meet a national need for housing, and environmental improvements are offered, it seems a pity to quibble over an adjective. Yet until the Government gives a more precise definition of these sites, regional offices of the Department of the Environment may continue to raise objections on the basis of some unquantified test of size.

If so, local authorities and developers would be wise to demonstrate, through their evidence to the local plan or unitary development plan inquiry, not only the suitability of the site in environmental terms but also the urgent policy need for redevelopment.

That may turn out to be the only basis on which they can of secure a recommendation from the local plan inspector that the site be formally identified.