Monday, 6 March 2017


There is a clear need for a Welsh Green belt across all of our country, to fringe our urban areas, to help focus out of town and fringe of town developments, not to mention helping to protect green spaces between and within some of our urban areas. It's worth noting that 'Green belt', if respected is a useful planning tool, originally introduced for London in 1938, it was then rolled out to England as a whole by a government circular in 1955 but interestingly enough not to Wales.

The original concept was to allow local councils to designate green belts when they wanted to restrict or control urban growth.  The idea worked and worked well, as by 2007, Green belt covered something like 13% of England (about one-and-a-half million hectares) despite the best efforts of previous Conservative, New Labour and Conservative–Liberal Democrat Governments it is still remains relatively well protected by normal planning controls against "inappropriate development".

Here in Wales we have one patch of notional green belt (or Green wedge) and that lies between Cardiff and Newport. Scotland has seven and Northern Ireland has 30 - each has its own policy guidance.  The preservation of green spaces aside, it comes down to planning permission, which can be a touchy subject, especially when a development (whether for commercial, housing or energy development) is controversial or the final decision is made against the wishes of local people.

It should be pretty clear to most dispassionate observers that in Wales, we lack a coherent national strategic development plan for Wales judging by the half-baked way local unitary development plans have been put together over the years. A number of which are focussed on housing developments, which have done (and will do) some pretty serious damage to our environment in the process without any necessary improvements in infrastructure e.g new railway stations with reasonably priced (or even free), adequate and secure park and ride facilities at Caerleon (closed as a result of the Beeching cuts in 1962, in the UDP since 1984) Llanwern and Magor.

In the south east, along the coastal belt and in and around Newport and Torfaen (not to mention Cardiff and Caerphilly) the last thirty years has seen a significant if not spectacular growth in the amount of housing, a significant percentage of which has never aimed to fulfil local housing needs. As a result the infrastructure along the coastal belt between Chepstow, Caldicot, Rogiet and Magor is struggling to cope with existing developments and this is well before the projected expansion of housing on and around the former Llanwern site really kicks in.

Northern Newport has now been linked to the south Cwmbran - something that has brought little material benefit to the residents of either urban area but has contributed much to traffic congestion. Similarly linking Cwmbran with Sebastopol will bring scant benefit to local residents. Even if eventually housing is built on the land just exactly how much of it will be affordable to local residents?

When the Severn Bridge tolls are reduced (rather than removed) after 2018, there will be a significant bump in house prices as people living in and around Bristol move cash in on cheaper housing over here.  This will impact on both affordable and available housing, developers will no doubt pitch their developments accordingly to cash in on perceived higher wages in the Bristol area and perceived cheaper housing over here (and no doubt our local authorities will fall over themselves to accommodate the developers wishes regardless how local people feel).

The National Assembly should know better and act accordingly, the institution when established was supposed to have sustainability enshrined in its actions, but, at times you really have to wonder, especially when it comes to the impact of some of the proposed developments on our communities. We need to protect the green wedges around and within our urban communities – because once developed they are gone for good.

The problem caused by a lack of protection to our Green wedges, etc is aggravated by the fact that what one generation of elected officials (and council officers) envisages as a green wedge, green lane, etc is often seen by later generations of elected officials (and council officers) as either prime land for development or a nice little earner to help balance out the books - this means that there is a real lack of stability and a long term vision for many of our urban areas and impacts on our quality of life. 

The National Assembly needs to act like the Welsh Parliament it should be and take the long view and create Welsh Green belt land with full legal and planning protections. This might go some way to calming things down when it comes to development planning and might introduce a more long-term sustainable democratic element into the process. This is something that could be accomplished by creating Welsh Green belt land, as part of the process we also need an urgent and open debate into the planning process in Wales - something that has been long overdue.

Successive Westminster government’s (in England) over the next few years will continue to talk about getting planning officers "off people's backs" with a relaxation of current rules. When they talk about ‘people’ they mean developers. In true Spiv fashion ‘for a limited period, people are able able to build larger extensions on houses (up to eight metres for detached homes and six for others). Shops and offices will also be able grow to the edges of their premises as Plan A (harsh Public Sector Cuts) continues to unravel and on the back of BREXIT a note of desperation may begin to creep into Westminster’s attempts to boost stabilise the economy.

These sounds good; it seems very reasonable save for the fact that somewhere amongst the smoke and mirrors the plan will reduce developer’s obligations to build proportional amounts of affordable housing and avoiding flood risk will go out the window. Not that long ago the previous Westminster government rewrote the entire planning framework (for England) despite some fierce resistance from countryside campaigners. No doubt Westminster ministers will want further changes to planning rules (in England) in an attempt to boost house building and revive the economy.

Not wanting to be left out (and bereft of any fresh ideas), a few years ago the previous Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff also pursued major changes to planning rules in Wales aiming to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’. This decision was in my opinion aimed quite specifically at overturning those few occasions when our Local Authorities have rejected developments (often at the behest of local residents) rather than putting economic needs ahead of economic and environmental benefits and will do little for sustainable, flood free development to deal with local housing needs let alone preserve our green spaces.

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