Tuesday 3 December 2019 4:12 am

Green belt reform isn’t political dynamite, it’s a major part of fixing the housing crisis

Claire Fallows is a partner at Charles Russell Speechlys.

As in every election campaign, the need to build huge numbers of new homes for voters is common ground across the main political parties. 

Yet, also treading a well-worn path, both the Conservatives and Labour continue through their manifestos to promise to protect the green belt and to prioritise development of brownfield land. 

Will this approach deliver the homes the country needs?

That there is a massive housing shortage in the country is not news. Headline figures aside, however, the imperative for buyers is all about location. Politicians need to deliver homes in places where people want to live. But search online for a map of the green belt, and you will see how extensive it is, constraining development around many of our towns and cities. 

Indeed, the fundamental planning aim of the green belt is to check urban sprawl — by keeping land permanently open.

Tinkering with the green belt is political dynamite — or so successive governments would have you think. In fact, green belt boundaries are constantly up for review, every time a local authority located within it brings forward a new plan setting out its development strategy. That has led to proposals for land to be released from the green belt across the UK, including (for example) in East Hertfordshire, Guildford and St Albans, to meet housing need.

So why not stop the pretence and undertake a strategic review of whether the green belt remains fit for purpose in 2019 and beyond? Look at the potential for releasing land in sensible places around transport hubs and routes into cities, especially given that much of it isn’t particularly “green” at all. 

Then consider the creation of replacement areas where appropriate to preserve openness, facilitating access to green spaces to improve wellbeing (which is not currently a planning purpose of the green belt).

Now, what of the panacea of brownfield development? Compared to greenfield sites, many brownfield sites are complex and therefore expensive to develop. There could be contamination from previous uses, conflicts with services or infrastructure, rights to light for neighbouring residents. The list is long and the risk can be high, reducing the attractiveness of these sites to developers.

To prioritise development of brownfield sites would actually require a sea change in planning policy and increased flexibility, especially around affordable housing and demands for contributions towards infrastructure. Yet planning policy in many areas, especially around London, is pushing in the opposite direction, with policymakers setting ever more stringent requirements for affordable housing delivery in particular. 

Development of brownfield sites should of course remain a central plank of government policy. But at the same time, any government must recognise that development of relatively unconstrained greenfield sites provides a critical contribution towards the need for affordable homes. 

Sticking to the old rhetoric about prioritising brownfield sites and preserving the green belt is not only misleading, but also a missed opportunity. The uncomfortable truth is that solving the housing crisis will require development on all types of land.

Main image credit: Getty

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