Green belt, brown field or grey area?

When Theresa May became Prime Minister she said affordable housing in Britain would be one of her chief priorities. In February this year a white paper was published on the subject. It’s called ‘Fixing our broken housing market’, and in it the government repeats the target it had already set out for itself. The declared aim is to increase the number of new-builds from the current average of 160,000 a year to something around 250,000 a year – that’s a million new homes by the end of 2020.

The white paper also lays out plans for how the government is going to get there, and one of the main areas it addresses is planning. “Over 40 per cent of local planning authorities do not have a plan that meets the projected growth in households in their area,” it says

Why are the councils dragging their feet? Because, the report says, they are mindful of local public opinion. They know that any move to build new estates in the countryside will be met with opposition. It’s time, the report says, for local authorities to stop ducking difficult decisions.

Speaking out

Even before the white paper was published, leading stakeholders were going public on the issue. In November last year Rob Perrins, Chief Executive of the Berkeley Group plc, said the government was going to miss its one-million-new-homes target, and that one of the main reasons was the lack of land ready for development.

Two months later, just before the white paper came out, Legal & General chief executive Nigel Wilson went further. He was explicit about something at which the government’s policy document only hinted. If one per cent of green belt was released for building, he said, it would be enough for up to one million new homes. There’s that number again!

On the face of it this shouldn’t be a contentious issue. Figures from the DCLG quoted in the white paper show only around 11 per cent of land in England has been built on. What’s another one per cent of green belt between friends

Making enemies?

The answer is that even only one per cent wouldn’t be between friends. It’s far more likely to create enemies. There are few things more certain to get otherwise politically inactive British people out in the streets – and the country lanes – than the prospect of new building on green belt land.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England argues that the green belt encircles towns and cities to stop them spreading into one another. It says there are plenty of alternatives. But in an interview with Kamal Ahmed of the BBC Nigel Wilson argued that some green belt land is green in name only. He said, “There are lots of areas that have been designated green belt which are really brown field sites and we absolutely have to build on more brown field sites.”

Principles and circumstances

If he’s right, it seems that some green belt land is, well, a grey area. Few people would want major building developments in an area of outstanding natural beauty, but most of them might feel differently about land that has been allowed to deteriorate into an eyesore and that’s destined to stay that way merely because it falls within a protected area.

In short, decisions will need to be made between upholding the principle of green belt legislation and recognising the needs and practicalities of individual cases. And that, perhaps, is one of the key points of February’s white paper. Local authorities are going to be obliged to go over what is figuratively and possibly literally difficult ground – and whether it’s green, brown or grey, develop a plan for its future.