Is the greenbelt up for grabs?

During the winter, when there are no leaves on the trees, Jeanette Gilmour can clearly hear the sound of the M6 motorway from her home in the village of Audley. But she is worried that the rumble of background noise might soon become a big problem.

The farmer’s field between the motorway and her village in Staffordshire in the West Midlands has been identified as a possible site for a major logistics warehouse development.

Gilmour has been one of several key organisers of a local campaign group that is lobbying against the warehouse project, as well as proposed housing developments around the village. The group has organised a Facebook page, knocked on neighbours’ doors, handed out flyers and petitioned the local council. 

“I found out about the fact that 1,100 houses were going to be built around the village, particularly in my back field. That got my attention right away,” Gilmour says. 

Among the group’s strongest arguments is that much of the land around Audley is part of the greenbelt that encircles the nearby city of Stoke-on-Trent. Jim Austin, another organiser, says that he believes that the greenbelt should be largely “sacrosanct”. 

His view is common to many voters across England. Motivated local campaigners like the group in Audley are one of the key reasons that, in all the rewriting of England’s planning policy, the greenbelt has been left largely unaltered since it was introduced in the 1950s.

‘We’re not Nimbies as such,’ says Jean Walters, who is against a proposed 450-house development near Solihull. ‘Any changes to the greenbelt should be done at the strategic level,’ she argues © Photographed for the FT by John Boaz

But in the past year, the consensus that any tinkering with the greenbelt is a political minefield has shown signs of cracking. In his conference speech in October, the Labour party leader Keir Starmer signalled he is open to change. 

The shadow housing minister Matthew Pennycook said the greenbelt is important to stop urban sprawl but that in areas where all the “low-quality land” has been used and housing needs are still not met, a Labour government will “expect [local authorities] to review greenbelt”.

These statements have surprised some planning experts who have long argued for an overhaul of the policy. “It’s brave even for Labour to have raised this at all. It’s quite surprising . . . It’s so politically toxic,” says Zack Simons, a planning barrister who has written extensively about greenbelt policy. 

“Even beginning a conversation about it is a very positive step. It’s something that very rarely has happened in our political discourse in England for 70 years.” 

The political risks of even hinting at reform are clear. Prime minister Rishi Sunak has accused Starmer of wanting to “concrete over the greenbelt”. 

The Tory loss in the 2021 Chesham and Amersham by-election — where development issues became a local lightning rod — still looms large in conversations about planning reform. More recently, housing secretary Michael Gove was forced to compromise with anti-development backbenchers. 

Gove’s recent policy changes, formally announced in December, include a commitment not to force local authorities to build on the greenbelt regardless of the need for housing. 

“It does seem that the Tories are trying to draw a line in the sand between themselves and Labour over the greenbelt,” says Elizabeth Bundred Woodward, planning policy lead at CPRE, a charity which campaigns to protect the countryside.

Behind the political battle that is taking shape around the greenbelt, as both parties gear up for an election expected this autumn, is the inescapable reality that the UK needs to build millions of new homes to catch up with its growing population — let alone meet future requirements. The question of on what land those homes should be built is becoming impossible to ignore. 

Edward Shepherd, senior lecturer in the school of geography and planning at Cardiff University, says the interest of “younger voters who are locked out of getting on the housing ladder” has changed the political calculation for Labour, who now want to signal “that they are prepared to take tough decisions to address the housing crisis” without perhaps getting into “murky and politically challenging policy detail”.

“It feels like now is a key time to address and deal with greenbelt in a grown-up way,’ says Roland Brass, a planning partner at estate agents Knight Frank. “It does feel like now, the next 12 months, is the moment for that to happen.”

Planning policy around the greenbelt is full of colourful metaphors. Some experts argue that the idea of a “green” belt itself is misleading. The specific intent of the policy set out in 1955 was to limit the sprawl of cities. 

On top of the roughly 12 per cent of England that is designated as greenbelt, another quarter of the country is set aside for Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, National Parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. These protections for landscape, wildlife and access to nature come closer to what many people imagine the purpose of the greenbelt to be. 

Within the 15 greenbelts around English cities — covering an area roughly 1.5 times the size of Yorkshire — 65 per cent of the land is used for agriculture, while about a fifth is open land, forest or water. The vast majority, 93 per cent, is undeveloped. 

Typically, applications to build in the greenbelt are only allowed in “exceptional circumstance”.

Farthing Downs, to the south of London, is part of the protected greenbelt © UrbanImages/Alamy
Brownfield sites are generally less appealing to housebuilders, since they’re harder to develop profitably   © Getty Images/iStockphoto

The slice of previously built-on “brownfield” land within the greenbelt has attracted the most policy attention. This category of land, the so-called grey belt, is seen as the most politically palatable for new development. 

Labour has seized on examples of disused car parks, petrol stations and other not especially green land within the belt as places to build. The party has said developments will need to include at least 50 per cent social or affordable homes, access to green space and proper infrastructure.

A study by Knight Frank identified 11,000 potential sites, making up less than 1 per cent of the greenbelt. But all those sites could only accommodate 100,000-200,000 new family homes, depending on the density of the new developments.

Charles Dugdale, partner at Knight Frank, says the next government should look at these sites but that the “grey belt” will “only ever be part of the solution”. 

The official housing target for England calls for 300,000 new homes every year, a goal the government has yet to meet. Despite the talk about increasing supply, the pipeline of new homes is currently shrinking.

The Home Builders Federation, which represents housebuilding companies, late last year reported that its measure of planning permission for housing in England — a leading indicator of future supply — reached the lowest 12-month rolling total since 2006, when the survey began.

Labour has outlined ambitious plans to build whole new settlements for the first time in several decades. These plans will take years to get off the ground. Releasing greenbelt land could have a quicker impact on housing land supply. But sticking to politically less dangerous “grey belt” land could limit the scope. 

A more ambitious proposal by academics Paul Cheshire and Boyana Buyuklieva in a report for the Centre for Cities found that up to 2.1mn homes could be built within 45 minutes by train of major cities, if greenbelt and farmland within 10 minutes’ walk of 1,035 railway stations was freed up for development. 

But such sweeping greenbelt reform may prove too politically toxic. The current government is moving in the other direction. 

Gove has emphasised the need to build more densely in urban areas. Research by consultancy Development Economics conducted for Landsec, British Land and Berkeley Group found that brownfield sites in 16 urban areas could provide space for up to 1.4mn homes by 2035. 

In Audley, campaigners say that there are sites within the village that should be built on before any greenbelt land. 

Both parties have talked about brownfield sites because they are the least politically sensitive. For developers, however, this land is less appealing. The extra expense involved in cleaning up second-hand sites makes it harder to develop them profitably. 

Brownfield sites within the greenbelt, such as former airfields or quarries, are sometimes located far from settlements and poorly served by transport, schools and other infrastructure. 

And a 2022 study by Lichfields consultants — which also found potential for 1.4mn homes on brownfield sites (whether in or outside the greenbelt) — said that number of homes “equates to just under a third of the 4.5m homes that are needed over the next 15 years”.

Emily Williams, director of residential research at Savills, supports brownfield development but says it is “nowhere near enough land”.

“It’s not the solution to 300,000 homes a year. When people act like it is going to be, it’s a disingenuous way of approaching the debate,” she says. 

For now, however, the government has decided to lessen the pressure on local authorities to review greenbelt boundaries even if their officially calculated housing needs will go unmet. Gove’s policy changes will push councils to come up with local plans for development, but also give them more discretion to say “no” to taking overflow housing needs from nearby cities. 

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up said the changes make it “easier to prioritise brownfield land while protecting and enhancing the greenbelt”. 

Simons says the changes do little to alter the formal policy that was already in place, but that the message from central government is a “big deal in that there are lots of these areas where the only hope you’d ever have to meet your need for housing . . . is going to involve greenbelt review and greenbelt release . . . There is no other way around it.” 

“‘[Gove] is opening the door for authorities to try to justify maintaining a failing status quo, preserving their areas in aspic while needs spiral,” he says. 

Jean Walters takes the opposite view. She hopes the new policy stance will embolden her local council, Solihull, to reject a 450-house development in the greenbelt on the edge of the village of Dickens Heath. She says the decision gives councillors their first opportunity to use the powers Gove has provided to simply ignore the pressure to take overspill housing from nearby Birmingham. 

“We’re not Nimbies as such,” insists Walters. “We know houses have to go somewhere. But it should be in sustainable urban extensions, not in the middle of green fields in unsustainable rural areas.” 

A self-described “poacher turned gamekeeper”, Walters is a retired chartered town planner and chair of planning for CPRE Warwickshire. She says local decision-making has led to “the cut of the thousand knives” for the greenbelt. “Any changes to the greenbelt should be done at the strategic level,” she argues.

The need for more joined-up decision-making is the one thing on which people on all sides of the greenbelt debate appear to agree.

Both pro-greenbelt campaigners like Walters and those who want to see more building think that leaving all the power with local authorities produces disjointed decisions. Many believe the question of where to build — and whether to shift land in and out of the greenbelt — would be better tackled at a regional level.

Labour has talked about doing more to get local authorities to co-operate in finding places to build homes. Pennycock says the government currently has “no mechanism to incentivise [and] encourage cross-local authority strategic planning”.

He says a Labour government would identify regions where better co-operation is necessary to address “huge unmet housing need”. “In select subregions, we are going to require local authorities to come together and put together spatial development frameworks . . . that is where they review greenbelt release, on that sort of strategic footprint,” he says.

But measures that may ultimately force more housing on unwilling local residents will be politically fraught. ‘‘First past the post and Nimbyism are very comfortable bedfellows,” says Marc Vlessing, chief executive of developer Pocket Living. He thinks greenbelt changes are likely impossible without some wider political reform. “We do not have powerful enough regional government[s] that can . . . do the bruiser deals that are needed.” 

Williams says pro-housing policies that play well at a national level could still cause problems locally. “No one has quite tested out really how it plays out at a local level . . . How much does people’s commitment to housebuilding hold up when it’s on their doorstep?”

Joshua Oliver is the FT’s property correspondent

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