The election result means many traditionally anti-development constituencies now have Labour MPs with small majorities. Will they oppose Starmer’s green belt plans? And if so will he stand up to them, asks Paul Smith.

“Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places,” said the prime minister. “People cannot afford to move to where their talents can be matched with opportunity. Businesses cannot afford to grow and create jobs.”

Paul Smith CROP

Paul Smith, managing director, Strategic Land Group

Those aren’t the words of Sir Keir Starmer, but another new prime minister with a commanding majority – Boris Johnson, in 2020.

He correctly diagnosed many of the problems afflicting the planning system but, despite his soaring rhetoric promising the biggest shake-up since the Second World War, was ultimately unable to administer the cure. Events, and opposition from his own backbench MPs, blew him off course. Reforming the planning system is harder than it seems.

Nowhere is that more obvious than with the green belt. The most recognisable of planning policies, it is also the most misunderstood – more than two thirds of the public know little to nothing about it but are prepared to defend it to the hilt.

Yet it is a key contributor to our housing crisis. Levels of development in areas constrained by the green belt are 80% lower than they would otherwise be, increasing prices locally by 20% and across the country as a whole by 4%. By making it harder for people to live near jobs, it acts as brake on economic growth too.

The new Labour government are promising to address that.

The most eye-catching of their proposals is the idea of “grey belt” land. This is a recognition that not all green belt is green.

Reforming the planning system is harder than it seems

Far from being the kitemark of landscape or ecological value that many believe it to be, the green belt is a simple planning designation expressly designed to stop the outward growth of many towns and cities. It includes wasteland, factories, storage yards, car parks, petrol stations and many other unattractive uses.

Although national policy already allows the redevelopment of brownfield sites within the green belt, those developments cannot have a greater impact on “openness” than whatever they replaced. This limits new development to the volume of the existing buildings, preventing the full potential of those sites being realised – car parks are of limited ecological or landscape value, but tend not to have buildings either. Not all developed land counts as brownfield either. Agricultural buildings, for example, are excluded from the definition. While a garden centre is a brownfield site, a plant nursery is not.

Formally defining “grey belt” in planning policy recognises that there is a broader range of sites that can be suitable for new homes, and that the density of development shouldn’t be restricted by the size of the existing buildings. It is a helpful step that will deliver more homes – perhaps as many as 900,000.

This will be supported by a more strategic approach to reviewing green belt boundaries. The green belt often performs a role at a greater-than-local level. Taking a “confident bite,” and releasing a larger site for development, is often the best way of delivering sustainable new communities and helping meet the housing needs of a region – but can be difficult to do by looking within the boundaries of a single local authority. 

Post-election, there are hardly any Conservatives left. Instead, Labour finds themselves with MPs representing many of those traditionally anti-development constituencies

Labour recognises that there is also a place for smaller-scale green belt release in individual local plans. The new secretary of state, Angela Rayner, is shortly to write to local authorities telling them to ensure their green belt boundaries are regularly reviewed.

Although care needs to be taken that these changes don’t delay or derail local authorities who are already committed to reviewing their green belt boundaries, they are all positive.

The big question is whether the new government will retain the political will to deliver them.

The intention is clearly there, with a number of reforms – such as a revised national planning policy framework – scheduled for the coming weeks. But we’ve seen before how easy it is for good intentions to be blown off course.

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The politics of green belt reform seemed favourable for Labour when they were in opposition. Seats with green belt are more likely to have Conservative MPs. It was worth upsetting some Conservative voters to deliver the homes that those who support Labour clamour for. At least that was the plan.

Post-election, there are hardly any Conservatives left. Instead, Labour finds themselves with MPs representing many of those traditionally anti-development constituencies. With no real opposition in Westminster, their main opponents are likely to be Labour’s own backbenchers, a huge number of whom have tiny majorities. 

At a time when the government has little money to spend, making it easier to build new homes is a way of achieving growth without cost to the Exchequer

Despite that, there are reasons to be optimistic. Labour have seen the damage done to the Conservatives by failing to deliver economic growth.

At a time when the government has little money to spend, making it easier to build new homes is a way of achieving growth without cost to the Exchequer. They’ve seen, too, the backlash against the last government for failing to follow through on their promises to build more homes and to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, of which housing costs are a huge part.

Whether Labour deliver on their own promise to reform green belt policy – something even Johnson wasn’t bold enough to contemplate - will be an early sign of whether their backbenchers will try to block planning reform and, if they do, whether Keir Starmer is prepared to do something else Johnson wasn’t and stand up to them.

­Paul Smith, Managing Director, The Strategic Land Group