Movement on the Green Belt?

The Economist newspaper often likes to shock by making bold proposals that assail shibboleths of British life. This week its marmalade-dropper was a radical suggestion on housing development: “To protect pristine land and unleash the economy, scrap the green belt”.

As mops hit home counties kitchen floors, the leader argued giving up just 10% of the green belt could give land for 5m new homes, in planned new towns. The green belt kept house prices high, but very little of it is actually open to the public. Yet polling shows it remains very popular. So could there be change?

November next year sees the centenary of the London County Council carrying a motion asking its Town Planning Committee to look into preserving a “green belt” around Greater London, by which they meant a half mile radius of undeveloped land. That didn’t happen, but extensive development in the 1930s pushed the LCC in 1938 to get an Act of Parliament allowing them to buy land around London to save it.

But the planning green belt was different – a post-war attempt to make sure development kept within the city. The misdirection succeeded, but so did the policy: the edge of London remains basically where it was in 1939. Meanwhile the green belt has expanded – leading to ‘leapfrog’ building just over the end of its boundaries.

21st century pressure for homes has already seen the green belt come under strain. Councils with most of their land area under green belt restrictions complained their housing targets took no account of it, and many hit political controversy over their local plan: it’s one reason many previously safe Conservative councils have changed party control.

Although party outriders sometimes complain (a 2015 Adam Smith Institute report calling for abolition was called ‘the Green noose’), Conservative governments have consistently cleaved to defend the green belt. The 2020 Planning white paper was adamant.

Liz Truss, who called for building a million homes on the green belt in her 2019 leadership campaign, had partly rowed back by 2022; her Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke was interested in relaxing the policy, but never had the opportunity and we are now back to plan A: Michael Gove’s recent speech was all about inner-city densification – not, as Rishi Sunak put it, “concreting over the countryside”.

Recent movement has instead come from the other side of the aisle and in light of Labour’s ming vase caution, its willingness to say potentially controversial things about the green belt may be meaningful. Keir Starmer did not say the words “green belt” to the British Chambers of Commerce but in interviews voluntarily mentioned developments blocked on car parks in the green belt.

Details of what a Labour government will do are not yet clear, and Starmer has also given an interview to local newspapers in Greater Manchester reassuring them “I want to protect the Green Belt and our countryside”, but “We build on the Green Belt at the moment but we need to build on those bits which aren’t particularly pleasurable.”

Labour is clearly happy to have a general election fight on the green belt, but the Conservatives may find a surprising ally in their corner – Mayor Sadiq Khan has always committed to protecting the green belt and opposing any relaxation of policy. For all that Sunak and Gove attack his record, Khan is with them in wanting a lot of homes built in inner London and the ‘second Docklands’ and not in extending London into surrounding districts.

Details of Labour’s policy haven’t been published and are likely to be light before the election, but it’s possible next year’s centenary of the green belt concept may see the first moves to roll it back.

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