28 July 2022

Rishi’s green belt-tightening is no solution to the housing crisis


In my last couple of pieces I’ve complained that the candidates haven’t said enough about arguably our biggest public policy failure, the planning system. After reading the latest press release from Rishi Sunak’s team, I’m starting to wish they had carried on saying nothing. 

Sunak will, he has today announced, ‘guarantee that the green belt will be protected’ and ensure a ‘brownfield, brownfield, brownfield’ policy.

The politics of this are simple enough. Sunak seems to be trailing Liz Truss and has decided to toss some red meat to the Tory base by effectively promising they won’t get any nasty new homes built anywhere near them.

So what’s the problem? To most people the idea of ‘protecting’ the green belt probably sounds all positive and eco-friendly. It’s got the word ‘green’ in it, so it must be an important part of maintaining England’s bucolic splendour.

The problem is, the green belt is not simply a synonym for the countryside, but a very specific development stranglehold on the areas immediately abutting (and sometimes within) England’s cities. If you look at this map, it’s as though some malicious planning demon had come up with a policy designed explicitly to strangle the productive potential of the country’s urban areas. 

Nor, contrary to what some anti-housing campaigners might have you believe, is the green belt shrinking before our eyes. As our editor-in-chief points out, there has been a small reduction in the amount of green belt land since the late 1990s – but the overall trend since the 1980s has been of massive expansion, you could even call it ‘rural sprawl’. To put things more precisely, in October last year the green belt covered 16,120km², back in 1979 the figure was just 7,215km²

To add insult to injury, much of this land is really not all that green or pleasant. It includes a mixture of fairly run-of-the-mill agricultural land, quarries, golf courses and even railway sidings. 

Indeed, such has been the encroachment of the green belt on our cherished urban areas that no less than 22% of the land in greater London, some 87.000 acres, is designated green belt.

And while Sunak’s argument that we could build 1 million new homes on brownfield land looks striking, it’s rather less arresting when you realise we could build the same number in London alone, just by building on land adjacent to railways. And even if all of that land were developed, it would require just 3.7% of nearly 87,000 acres of green belt.

As the figures above suggest, the green belt has grown so large – covering a staggering 12.4% of England – that you need only unleash a sliver of it to get a really significant number of homes built. And there’s the added bonus that this is, by definition, land  in and around cities, i.e. where most of the jobs and demand for homes already exist.

There are some other serious issues with Sunak’s plans. Ordering planning bureaucrats to overrule local councils if they want to release land for development sounds distinctly anti-democratic. Equally importantly, the former chancellor says he wants to focus new building on ‘the north west, Yorkshire and the West Midlands’. Now, all of those areas are perfectly fine places to build new homes, but none is crying out for them like London and the south-east are. I find it hard to believe that someone of Sunak’s abilities genuinely thinks we can ‘build the homes we need’ by concentrating on brownfield sites outside by far the UK’s largest city.

Then again, perhaps he’s planning to ‘do a Starmer’ and promise one thing to his party electorate before turning round and doing something entirely different in office. I live in hope…

In Sunak’s defence, at least we’ve had a bit of detail from him on this important area. So far the most we’ve had from Liz Truss is a pledge to scrap ‘Stalinist’ housing targets. It’s an enigmatic promise because it could just about be taken as a liberalising move – with no target, you could build as many houses as you like! – but is more likely her way of telling the Tory selectorate that she won’t force councils to build if they don’t want to (spoiler alert: most of them don’t want to).

She should listen, instead, to the wise words of a Tory MP and former Treasury minister who said in 2019:

‘We need to build a million homes on the London Green Belt near railway stations, and around other growing cities, specifically to allow the under 40s to be able to own their homes. We should allow villages to expand by four or five houses a year without having to go through the planning system, so people can afford to live locally’.

As you’ve probably deduced, the name of that MP was…Liz Truss. If 2019 Liz can get in touch with 2022 Liz, we might just have a decent housing policy on our hands.

John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.