18 May 2023

Fixing the Green Belt will save Britain, if you actually do it

By Tom Spencer

If we take politicians at their word, it would seem that we finally have a political establishment determined to solve the housing crisis. Given the scale of the shortage of homes, this pivot is not that surprising.

On the right Michael Gove has lit up the National Conservative conference by demanding that more homes be built (if only he was in power to do so, eh?). More optimistic still is Sir Keir Starmer’s apparent shift, with his promise to ‘make Labour the party of housebuilding by relaxing planning restrictions and allowing more homes to be built on the Green Belt’.

The fact that a leader of the opposition is willing to say this is a testament to decades of hard work by a coalition of housing affordability activists. Yet it is not new rhetoric. We have heard Tory Housing Secretaries make similar promises throughout the last 13 years, and all of them have failed to deliver. However, merely talking about Green Belt reform, shows that the Overton Window is shifting away from Nimbyism. 

Reforming the Green Belt could play a key role in achieving Starmer’s aspiration of making Britain the fastest growing country in the G7. Economists have long pointed out that cities are the engines of growth that support our economies. The Green Belt is a spanner in that engine. When the Green Belt was created it was not designed to protect nature, but to prevent the growth of our cities. If it was all about preserving green fields, then that may be a worthwhile pursuit – but we already have statutory protections better designed for these purposes, such as areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks, as well as through private agreements known as conservation covenants. Protecting the countryside and workers’ access to it is important, but simply blocking urban expansion is the wrong way to do it.

Making up a landmass three times the size of London, the Green Belt was never originally intended to grow so big. Indeed, when it was first proposed by Herbert Morrison’s London County Council it was only meant to be two miles wide – today its width is 35 miles. Moreover, much of it is in the areas most suitable for development. The Centre for Cities estimated in 2019 that by allowing new homes to be constructed within walking distance of train stations in the Green Belt, we could build another 1.7m-2.1m new homes, all in areas commutable to central London. This would mean releasing just 1.8% of existing Green Belt space, to build more homes than we’ve completed in the last 15 years combined. 

The problem with the plan is Labour have not made clear how exactly they are going to get those homes built. Starmer has said it will be for local areas to decide whether or not they release Green Belt land. However, the National Planning Policy Framework already allows local planning authorities to release Green Belt land where they deem it to be necessary for development. The problem is most local authorities rarely do so. The rhetoric is great, but without detail of how you incentivise local authorities to release land, then that’s all it is. 

Moreover, there’s every reason to believe he’ll renege on his promises once elected. Repeatedly, we have seen Starmer attack developers for ‘hoarding land’. However, there’s no evidence that this practice actually exists, and is more often a symptom of the housing crisis itself. This is because developers end up applying for more permissions than they need to account for the risk that their applications will be denied. Reduce planning risk by increasing certainty in the system and land banking won’t be a problem. Elsewhere, we have seen Labour MPs actions directly contradict this new Yimby rhetoric, such as Lisa Nandy who has recently opposed housing in the Green Belt in her constituency.

If Starmer wants to build on the Green Belt, then he needs to incentivise local authorities to get these homes built. There are numerous ways to do this. Most easily would be reforming s106 to actually provide a stronger financial incentive to local authorities to permit new homes. Annualising property valuations for the purpose of local taxation would also help by allowing those who gain from new developments, such as Crossrail, to be taxed accordingly. Or he could go for a tougher approach like the Californian builders remedy that forces authorities to approve any housing project where at least 20% of the homes are affordable, if the area does not plan for enough homes to be built. It does not matter how he does it. The important thing is that the homes get built.

Yet simply pledging to build more homes on the Green Belt is cause for celebration in itself. Just a couple of years ago, no leader of any party would dare say such a thing in the run-up to an election. However, unless Sir Keir presents a better plan of how those homes are actually going to be built, it won’t happen and the crisis will get worse. Let’s hope I’m wrong. 

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Tom Spencer is Research Director at Priced Out.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.