GREEN belt land in south Essex could be spared from thousands of homes being built after a senior planning inspector said it was a matter for local councils to decide.
Keith Holland, an inspector for the department for communities and local government, is shown on video telling Castle Point councillors they would not be forced to release green belt to meet housing targets.
His assurance, made in a video leaked to the Echo, is at odds with what Castle Point, Basildon and Rochford councils have told residents while they prepared local development plans for the next 20 years.
Castle Point and Basildon are planning to allow the building of 5,000 and 11,000 homes respectively, with large swathes of them on green fields, while Rochford had its plan for 2,500 new homes adopted this year.
Mr Holland said in the video of the meeting in March: “I want to be absolutely clear. If a local authority wishes to amend its green belt or use some of its green belt land for development, that is a decision for the local authority. It is not a decision which the planning inspector will impose on a local authority.
“It is purely your decision if you want to use green belt land or not and the National Planning Policy Framework is very clear.”
Councillors have said failure to get a housing plan in place would lead to decisions about green belt land being made by government planning inspectors, but Mr Holland added: “We will not impose that on you, we will never go to an examination and say to an authority you must use green belt land to accommodate your development.
It is your decision.”
Leaked: Still from the video
In the video, he also says councils will not be forced to build the homes if flooding is an issue, such as happened recently on Canvey and across Rochford.
Andrew Sheldon, a Castle Point Tory councillor at the inspector’s briefing, said: “This is the complete opposite of what planning officers have been telling members, which is that if we don’t designate enough house building sites, then they will be imposed on us by the Planning Inspectorate, but here the inspector could not have been clearer this is not the case.”
This week, Phil Turner, Tory leader of Basildon Council, accused Billericay Action Group, which opposes 2,500 homes being built on green belt around the town, of being Nimbys.
He claimed inspectors would impose the housing if it wasn’t allocated by his council.
Adam Adshead, a Billericay town councillor on the action group said: “This goes against the message from the council that it is being forced to release this amount of green belt.
“The inspector clearly says if they can argue they don’t have the land elsewhere then green belt would not have to be released in this way.”
Basildon and Rochford councils dismissed planning inspector Keith Holland’s comments and said they were doing what was right for their green belts.
Protected: Green belt fields
Ian Ward, Tory responsible for planning at Rochford, said: “The inspector is explaining local authorities should identify need; identify constraint; work with their neighbours to meet the duty to cooperate and then a local authority may prepare a plan to say the identified needs can’t be met.
“However, the inspector has made it abundantly clear a local authority is going to be hard pressed to demonstrate its plan is sound and can be adopted with housing allocations that do not meet the identified needs.
“That being the case, Rochford’s sensible, pragmatic approach to identifying land for development to meet the needs of the district in a planned way is the correct approach to fulfilling the requirements of the national planning policy framework.”
Basildon Council pointed to the fact communities minister, Eric Pickles, said it would in future have to release green belt land when he refused plans for 750 homes on green belt at Little Chalvedon Hall, Bowers Gifford, in June.
A spokesman said: “In preparing the local plan the council has used a robust evidence base, as required by national policy, to determine the borough's development needs and evaluated these against the requirements of Government policy, other legal requirements and the practical merits of meeting those needs within the borough.”
Castle Point Council was unavailable to comment.
Known for months: MP Rebecca Harris
Castle Point MP Rebecca Harris, who arranged the briefing to council members, said she had been telling the council for months green belt in the borough could be protected.
She said: “I asked the Minster if he could send an inspector to speak to the council, as some councillors kept talking about Government targets forcing building on green belt, despite the fact the incoming Government changed the law, abolished housing targets and just asked councils to provide for what they could prove they needed and could find appropriate space for.
“The Government’s view is clear. If councils want to allocate green belt sites in local plans it is their decision, but the Government won’t impose it.
“Frankly I was fed up with the Government’s view being misinterpreted.
I accept planning law is confusing. I am grateful that the planning inspector spelt it out in crystal clear terms.
“I have always fought to protect the beautiful, virgin, green belt local residents treasure.
Green belt and the future of our borough is too important to lost because of confusion or to be used for political point scoring.”