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The latest green belt warning highlights the choice facing the Tories

6 August 2018

10:41 AM

6 August 2018

10:41 AM

Good news for people who want the government to make it easier to build homes? The papers today carry news that local authorities are proposing nearly half a million (459,000) homes on green belt land, up from 425,000 a year ago. While on the surface more homes at a time of housing shortages might seem like welcome news, there are two problems. According to the report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, (a) the bulk of it isn’t aimed at struggling first time buyers (b) it risks making Britain’s green spaces an endangered species in the long term.

The report claims that the green belt is being sacrificed to build expensive homes that young families may never be able to afford. Just 22pc of those granted planning permission in the green belt are technically affordable – a category that includes social housing and shared ownership. In the last year alone, the equivalent of 400 football pitches of greenfield land was turned into housing and of it 28pc was classed as affordable – the lowest proportion in eight years. At the moment, planning guidance means that councils are asked to consider all other options before allocating green belt land for development. The CPRE say that given that the plans aren’t bringing about affordable homes, more brownfield sites should be used instead. However, one gets the impression that even if the houses were majority ‘affordable’, they would still not be happy at the intrusion on green belt land.

It follows that the CPRE argue that the rules on building on the green belt in ‘exceptional circumstances’ need to be tightened. What’s striking about the warning is that Theresa May tends to have a good reputation (in some circles) for trying to protect green belt land – in fact, she is regarded as one of the biggest nimbys in the party. Within government there are many ministers who have been left frustrated with the Prime Minister’s caution on relaxing planning permission. Given that the Chancellor – Philip Hammond – is anti borrowing to build, it means that the combined force of No 10 and No 11 can mean that nothing very drastic happens on housing at a time when homes are desperately needed. These pro-build Tories argue that it’s time MPs in leafy areas stopped fretting about their view and focus on the bigger picture. The property-owning dream will die if the Conservatives don’t take drastic action – and if it does that is a fatal blow to the Tories’ survival.

Of those voices in Cabinet calling on the government to relax planning permission further, Liz Truss told Tory voters at the Spectator housing conference that they had a choice: build on the green belt or get Prime Minister Corbyn:

‘It’s a lot less uncomfortable having the field next to your house built on, than it is having your property appropriated by a bunch of Socialist-Marxists.’

This highlights the ongoing debate in the Conservative party over how best to solve the housing problem. Although provisions for higher rates of affordable housing should be put in place, it seems unlikely that restrictions on building on the green belt will be tightened. For one, the incumbent Prime Minister is likely biggest supporter they have on this issue – were May to be replaced you’d likely get a more radical house building programme that involved a combination of building on the green belt and brown field land. To put things into perspective, the 315 hectares built on last year make up only 0.002% of the UK’s 1.6m hectares of green belt. The CPS’s Rob Colvile points out that at this construction rate, the whole thing would take 5000 years to go. It follows that for many the issue isn’t that nearly half a million homes will be built on it – it’s why that figure isn’t higher.

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