Labour has pledged to tear up planning red tape and unlock some of the UK's protected green belt land for development to increase the supply of homes - but only where it would not detract from the beauty of the countryside.
Party leader Sir Keir Starmer said in a speech to the British Chambers of Commerce on Wednesday (17 May) he wanted to see the price of houses come down, as he reiterated accusations that the Tories were killing off the dream of home ownership. Labour has said it would restore the target of building 300,000 houses a year following Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s controversial decision in December to make the ambitious target advisory rather than mandatory.
But Starmer said the target would not be enough on its own to meet housing demand, so reforms such as allowing for some development of green belt land would be introduced should his party win power at the next election.
But what exactly is a green belt, and how would the rules for building there change under Labour's leadership?
What is green belt land?
The green belt refers to the policy of leaving an area of land around a city or town either undeveloped, or set aside for agricultural use to prevent urban sprawl.
Many of the UK's major cities have a sizeable green belt. London's is the largest, with approximately 513,860 hectares of land with the special planning designation. Around 110,000 hectares of green belt land within the M25, the Guardian reports.
According to the UK's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), green belts serve five purposes - checking the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas; preventing neighbouring towns merging into one another; helping safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; preserving the setting and special character of historic towns; and helping with urban regeneration - by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
As of 2018, an estimated 93.2% of the Green Belt was undeveloped land, primarily used for agriculture - with farmland making up 65.6% of all green belt land. About 6.7% was developed, with over half of this developed land covered by roads and other transport infrastructure. Residential buildings accounted for just 0.3%.
What are the current rules around building on the green belt?
A key tenet of green belts is that they must maintain their openness, therefore they are subject to strict building regulations.
Under the NPPF, once established, green belt boundaries should only be altered under "exceptional circumstances", and local authorities need to demonstrate that they have considered all other reasonable options for any development.
Before any building can take place, a council will need to consider whether it could possibly use brownfield or underutilised land first, and discuss with neighbouring authorities whether it could be built there.
Getting approval to build on green belt land is often an expensive, difficult, and time-consuming process.
What would change under Labour's proposed policy?
In a drive to “back the builders, not the blockers”, Starmer said there could be limited cases where green belt development could be allowed by local authorities in England.
Under his plan, councils would be given “more powers to direct where houses are built”, including on the green belt in some circumstances. "I value our countryside... [But] there is already building on the green belt, the question is do local areas have sufficient control over where that happens and how that happens.”
Starmer highlighted an example between a car park which was in the green belt and a playing field which was not, with the latter site chosen for development instead. “We’ve got to take better decisions than that,” he said.
He told BBC Breakfast: “We would make those tough choices and say to local areas: notwithstanding that it is the green belt, if it is a car park or similar land which doesn’t affect the beauty of our countryside, which we all want to preserve, then we’ll change the planning rules, we’ll give you the planning powers to do that.”
Starmer later told BBC Radio 4 he understood many Britons felt deeply about the prospect of building on green belt land. “Insofar as people object because they want to protect the green belt, that’s right. And of course we want to protect the green belt, we’ve got fantastic countryside and we need to protect it. But we need to recognise we do build on bits of the green belt and we don’t build on the right bits.”