6 September 2011

The Colour Green – Jargon-busting the NPPF

The Coalition Government's proposed* changes to national planning policy have received a lot of attention recently. In particular the National Planning Policy Framework's 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' has been criticised as a builder's charter that will allow greedy developers to concrete over the English Countryside. 

Public perception of the NPPF and planning policy in general is not helped by the often bewildering interpretation of apparently straightforward language. In particular I am thinking of the word 'green' which is key to our understanding both policies and places.

This article looks at the policy-specific meaning of the word 'green' and how this tallies (or otherwise) with what you might expect it to mean.

Greenfield does not mean Green Belt
It is tempting to see 'greenfield' as synonymous with 'Green Belt'. After all, they both conjure images of beautiful open spaces, worthy of protection. However, these two terms are quite different in policy and (therefore legal) terms. A greenfield site is one that has not previously been developed or built on. One example would be farmland or an urban park.

Green Belt, on the other hand is land on urban fringes that has specifically been designated for a certain type of protection under Planning Policy Guidance 2 (PPG2). Green Belt land can include large buildings and their grounds such as hospitals and factories. It can include whole villages with homes, shops and businesses all 'protected'.

The two can overlap, and often do. However, it is worth remembering the distinction.

Green Belt can be brownfield as well
The opposite of an undeveloped, greenfield site is a brownfield site, which involves either demolition or refurbishment of existing structures. As there are already many buildings on Green Belt designated land, these sites are viewed as brownfield, whilst enjoying the protection of PPG2. So, while greenfield sites are often Green Belt, Green Belt sites are also often brownfield. Confused? Perhaps the repetition of the word 'green' is where the layman (and local councillors) go wrong. So if 'green' can be 'brown' what is 'green' in the first place?

'Green' is not a colour
The 'green' in Green Belt does not refer to grass or leaves. Nor does the 'green' in greenfield. 'Green' does not refer to green roofs, sedum blankets or living walls. If an undeveloped field is sown for rapeseed and turns yellow, it is still green in the eyes of planning policy. Lakes and reservoirs are often designated as Green Belt land, even though they are neither green in colour nor are they even land.

'Green' does not mean beautiful
The reasons for designating land as Green Belt are laid out in PPG2. It is quite specific that aesthetic appeal of a site has no bearing on its role as Green Belt. Conversely, the perceived ugliness of a Green Belt is not a reason to relax its protection or allow development that would not be accepted elsewhere. Supporters of the Gypsy Camp at Dale Farm in Essex have pointed out that the site was a scrap yard prior to its purchase by Irish Travellers. They questioned why an ugly knackers' yard is treated like pristine countryside. The simple answer is that rightly or wrongly and despite popular perception, beauty has no relation to the word 'green'.

There are planning policies, such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), which deal with aesthetic landscape value, but Green Belt and greenfield policies do not.

'Green' does not mean sustainable
The phrase 'sustainable development' is key to one of the most disputed parts of the NPPF and 'green' technologies, lifestyles and developments are all about sustainability. So why doesn't 'green' mean sustainable? The answer is that 'green' emerged as part of planning-speak way back in the 1930s, before sustainability was recognised as a concept, let alone tied to a certain colour.

Sustainability can be used to justify Green Belt development as 'very special circumstances' in some cases but there is no connection between the 'green' in Green Belt or greenfield and sustainability in policy terms.

'Green' does mean scarce
So we get to the crux of the matter, what does 'green' actually mean in planning policy speak. To quote the PPG2, the policy document for Green Belts;

The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the most important attribute of Green Belts is their openness”

This simply stated aim for Green Belts is complicated by the fact that Green Belt sites aren't always 'open' to start with. As described above, they can include hospitals, factories and even entire villages, which all represent built footprint on an otherwise open landscape.

If all buildings were viewed as non-open then nothing would ever be built in the Green Belt and the aim of the policy would be to seek mass demolition. Thankfully, this is not the case as the policy PPG2 specifically describes how new buildings and extensions can be appropriate. Openness, therefore is a question of degrees and judgement. An entirely open landscape would be a missed opportunity whereas a low density landscape offers all the benefits openness with increased opportunities for access and enjoyment.

The Scarce Belt
So, despite everything that popular culture tells us, 'green' means scarce, can also be 'brown' and has nothing to do with colour, beauty or sustainability where planning policy is concerned. Perhaps the NPPF is an opportunity to clear up the jargon of planning policy. Personally I'd like to see Green Belt rebranded as what it is, an area of lower density. It doesn't have the same ring to it, but perhaps a Scarce Belt policy could help end the confusion.

Related articles;
Green Belt Planning Policy – PPG2 Explained in Plain English

--- UPDATE FROM MARCH 2012 ---

* A revised draft of the NPPF has now been published, which has slightly changed the wording of Green Belt policy. The new NPPF also supersedes PPG2.