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The fight to save Sheffield's green and pleasant land

The blueprint which will dictate how Sheffield is developed over the next 15 years is due to be unveiled. 
The Local Plan is a framework which looks at housing, the economy, community facilities and infrastructure as well as the environment, adapting to climate change and good design. It’s a vital document as developers and council officers will use it as a basis for planning applications - and a crucial aspect will be its review of the city’s Green Belt areas and whether any can be opened up for development. 
Dore Village Society has been waiting for more than 15 months for the latest Local Plan to be published, following several delays. Its Dore Neighbourhood Plan will feed into the citywide document. The society is the biggest neighbourhood forum in the country with a membership of 1,000 people and a 60 year history. It organises all kinds of community events including a village gala, party on the green and Christmas lantern parade but one of its key roles is scrutinising planning applications. 
Christopher Pennell, of the society, is the ideal person to debate the Local Plan. He spent 27 years in the coal industry before switching to a career in environment and heritage. He’s a former regional director for the National Trust in the East Midlands, was a national board member of English Nature and a founder board member of Natural England. He was also a member of the Peak District National Park Authority for nine years and sat on the planning committee plus spent time as chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund for East Midlands. Now, aged 71, his focus is Dore and Totley and how that area can be preserved and protected from encroaching development. 
“The Peak District is bound by the Green Belt all the way around,” he said. “The Green Belt is between the Peak District and developing urban areas. Once an area falls into the Green Belt you can’t build on it except in very special circumstances. 
“There is a presumption against house building, unless it’s a special exemption such as splitting a farm building into two houses or building a new barn. 
“A small amount of affordable housing can be built in villages but it’s limited and it’s quite a good protection. 
“The Local Plan is the only time the Green Belt can be changed and the only people who can change it are the local authority, it’s not the Government. 
“One of the important characteristics is that Green Belt is permanent so only the Local Plan can change it. 
“It could be 20 years between each Local Plan but the Government is talking of expecting local authorities to update it more regularly. At the very least they want to re-examine it every five years and there’s an implication that there is the potential to possibly change the Green Belt more regularly.” 
Around three years ago the council produced its Citywide Options for Growth document which said Sheffield would need 43,000 more new homes by 2034. Christopher is concerned this huge number of new homes will force planners to look again at Green Belt sites. 
“Sheffield has been very good at defending its Green Belt but now the pressure is on every authority because the number of houses we need is enormous. 
“Planners are definitely looking at the potential for the Green Belt to be released. The original plan was to look at four Green Belt sites - one at Stocksbridge, two in Mosborough, three in Waverley and four at Norton Aerodrome close to the new retail park. 
“Even then these sites don’t quite hit the 43,000 target, they still needed another 500 homes so option five was small releases of the Green Belt in unnamed places.” 
In Christopher’s words “everyone wants a bit of Dore” but the neighbourhood does have some outstanding aspects which set it apart from other Green Belt areas. 
"The Green Belt land between Dore and the National Park is enormously important because of its beauty and biodiversity. 
“We have too great a tendency to just say it’s Green Belt, we need to look at the landscape character assessment. Sheffield Council took the view in the past that this was land of High Landscape Value and not a place we would normally build on. 
“A questionnaire of Dore residents found they want it protecting to prevent development encroaching into the countryside. The concentration should be in the city centre rather than making the city even bigger. 
“The Green Belt in Dore protects the setting of a Natural Park. That is the key in my view. There should be a different way of looking at this side of Sheffield because it’s the setting of the National Park. We are in favour of preserving historic buildings but shouldn’t we have respect for the setting of a National Park? 
“If you look at photos there is the National Park then heather down to Dore with mature trees, then Millhouses then into the city centre. You would have bricks and mortar right on the visual edge of the National Park if you don’t protect the Green Belt.” 
What makes an area Green Belt? It’s a common misconception that the Green Belt covers areas which are beautiful or wildlife havens. The actual legal description is much more stringent as Christopher explained: 
“One of the odd things about the Green Belt is people think it’s there to protect beautiful countryside, to preserve biodiversity of wildlife or to protect land that people care about. 
“It’s just not true. The Green Belt has to be created for one of five purposes and they are nothing to do with the quality of the land or how much people care about it or the biodiversity. 
“Green Belt on the east of the city is seen as just as valuable as in the west - there is no extra value for being next to a National Park.” 
The Green Belt serves five purposes: 
  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas 
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another 
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment 
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns 
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land 
Why build on the Green Belt rather than brownfield? At the moment, Green Belt land cannot be “held back” until all brownfield sites have been developed. Christopher said: “A lot of Sheffield, such as Attercliffe and Shalesmoor, has a lot of old workshops which could be cleared to make way for attractive housing. The best housing for people is close to the city centre where the jobs and services are. 
“But developers were critical of building in these areas because of past issues with flooding. 
“The worry is developers can’t do as much in the city centre and they may have to do more in the Green Belt. 
“Our worry is that the Green Belt sites are not contaminated and don’t need any clearing before work begins. Developers will choose the easy land first. 
“If you could release the Green Belt in 2030 rather than first you would know people are only developing it as a necessity but at the moment you can’t hold things back.”
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