The potential of the 'grey belt' for housing delivery

Karen Charles, Executive Director, Boyer looks at how green belt reform may help tackle the UK's ongoing housing crisis.

Related topics:  Property,  Housing,  Green belt
Karen Charles | Boyer
22nd December 2023
Rural 555
"Few would argue for the Green Belt to be abolished, but its value would be increased if its strictures were softened somewhat"
- Karen Charles - Boyer

It was a great disappointment for the housing world and the many families in need of better quality homes that there was little mention of housing in the recent King's Speech.

There is absolutely no question that a housing crisis exists: in the past 12 years, according to Inside Housing's own figures, 162,000 social rent homes were delivered, but 332,000 were sold off or demolished – representing a net loss of over 14,000 a year. The cost of living crisis has forced would-be first-time buyers into over-priced rental properties and some renters into homelessness.

We need legislation to address the housing crisis – a substantial Bill which takes into account the hurdles in planning and land acquisition but goes further still, for example, in addressing the fiscal issues. The crisis in affordable housing will continue to escalate if funding is nothing more than a tax on development because spiralling build costs and added requirements such as biodiversity net gain push viability to its limits.

I am painfully aware of the need for more homes, including market and social housing, to be available at a price which is affordable.

Where I am based in the South East, the price of a home, whether to buy or to rent, is inaccessible to many, including essential key workers such as nurses and teachers. This then has consequences for delivering public services to everyone. So it was encouraging to hear Labour politicians at their recent party conference pledging to release parts of the Green Belt.

The Green Belt is now over 70 years old and covers 13% of the UK, surrounding 14 of the country’s 20 largest towns and cities, mostly, but not exclusively, in the south.

Since it was introduced in the 1950s, the UK population has grown from around 51 million to over 68 million. Housing need, and especially the requirement for affordable housing, has never been more acute and many local authorities are unable to meet their housing need without strategically reviewing, and ultimately accepting, some development within the Green Belt.

Few would argue for the Green Belt to be abolished, but its value would be increased if its strictures were softened somewhat. Currently, the development plan process which allows for land to be removed from the Green Belt for residential development in exceptional circumstances is time-consuming and comes with considerable risk.

Were Green Belt legislation to allow for local flexibility, it could result in such sites coming forward for development as attractive communities with accessible natural amenities.

Back in May, Keir Starmer used a disused petrol station as an example of land within the Green Belt which had little aesthetic value but considerable development value. This – along with ‘disused car parks’ and ‘dreary wastelands’ – has since been branded the ‘Grey Belt’, representing that currently protected land which many would agree should be made available for development if it is suitably and sustainably located.

It is refreshing to hear politicians challenging strongly-held views about the Green Belt; likewise announcing war on NIMBYism. In branding himself a YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard), Starmer has taken on a controversial label but addresses the problem very directly.

Many of the statements made in the Labour conference hall will require close consideration to determine whether they are realistic or will result in any real change.

Another example is the commitment that building on brownfield land would have a ‘stronger presumption in favour of permission’. Brownfield development currently has a stronger presumption in favour of development than greenfield land.

Whether planning policy can result in more social and affordable homes developed on brownfield land will, as it does now, depend on viability: if the costs of remediation, mitigation, access and numerous other constraints stack up to such an extent that the provision of social and affordable housing in new developments is some time lost in its entirety.

Hence my call for a Housing Bill to address this and the many other issues that threaten the supply of housing for those who need it most.

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