The Social Network: Momentum grows for building on the Green Belt

Patrick Mooney, housing consultant and news editor of Housing, Management & Maintenance magazine, says there is a growing possibility we could build on Green Belts.

In this General Election year it is inevitable that the nationwide shortage of housing will be one of the main topics fought over by the political parties, and yet there is a ready-made solution which most politicians shy away from even talking about.

Almost everyone agrees that we are not building enough homes for the population’s needs, with a wide consensus that we should be building at least 300,000 new homes a year. Instead of which, we built around 200,000 homes last year (including conversions) and we have averaged just over 150,000 new homes annually in the past decade.

There are many contributory factors for this – a lack of materials and labour, the high cost of finance (including mortgages), planning issues, land banking by developers, and so on, but probably the single biggest problem is the shortage of suitable land for building housing on. This is reflected in the price of residential land, which normally accounts for around 70% of the cost of new houses.

It is accepted that land is a finite resource and it needs careful management. The sight of flooded homes has shown us the foolishness of building on floodplains, particularly when our climate appears to be going through some pretty wild changes, including the increasing regularity of excessive bouts of heavy rainfall.

So surely it is time for us to rethink our approach to the Green Belts which surround many of our conurbations, and which are designed to prevent urban sprawl and provide people with ready access to the countryside and recreational activities. 


In England there are 14 areas of Green Belt, which accounts for approximately 13% of the total land area. It amounts to 1.6 million hectares (almost a third of this is around the capital), and it does indeed provide valuable protections for farmland, forestry and nature reserves. 

But it also includes a lot of unattractive scrub, brownfield sites (such as redundant farm buildings), and low grade agricultural land, as well as quarries and disused farms.

Is it right that such a valuable resource should be preserved in aspic and never considered for any housing development, even where there is local support for this? 

Meanwhile there is limited appetite for the building of new towns (despite some support from Labour leader Keir Starmer), the modular building sector has suffered a series of existential setbacks and the conversion of former office buildings and retail sites is also proving to be problematic, not least because of the enormous cost of retrofitting them and providing them with modern facilities and infrastructure.

But we also have brownfield sites all across England that have been identified for redevelopment and which collectively could provide sufficient land for 1.2 million homes (about half of this already has planning permission) and which are largely lying dormant.

The countryside charity CPRE has analysed hundreds of brownfield land registers, looking at urban sites that have previously been built on. The amount of land available for new housing covered 27,342 hectares, which represents just 1.7% of the combined Green Belt land. 


Surely the answer to our housing crisis lies in taking a balanced approach – to undertake both widespread development of brownfield sites, and complement this with limited development of the Green Belt. Developers could be offered incentives to invest in brownfield sites, which often needs a lot of expensive cleaning up and remediation work, while local housing needs should prevail over NIMBYism in the countryside.

A strong case exists for including Green Belts in the list of possible solutions to the housing crisis. Without this we are condemning hundreds of thousands or people, maybe even millions of our fellow residents, to lives without hope of ever attaining a secure and affordable home.

When the possibility of re-examining our approach to Green Belts is mentioned as part of a solution to our broken housing market, it is usually met with howls of indignation and accusations that a wicked minority of townies want to ‘concrete over’ the countryside. Indeed threats of rebellion among Conservative backbench MPs have been sufficient to cover several Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State from taking action.

However, there are glimmers that this anti-development mood within Government might be about to change following the appointment of Nicholas Boys Smith to run the Office for Place, within the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. 

Its primary purpose is to help create beautiful, successful and enduring places that foster a sense of community, local pride and belonging. It has been tasked with helping draw up design codes for different areas that could speed up the planning process for millions of new homes by providing a fast track if builders stay in line with the codes. 

Boys Smith has already been given the unofficial title of ‘building design tsar.’ Earlier in the New Year he gave media interviews in which he said that not all of the Green Belt – i.e. that “of low or no agricultural or amenity quality” – should be protected for ever.”


Boys Smith is not advocating mass development, but instead a change of approach. “We have not built enough over the last five, 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. As a society, we have fallen out of love with the future and we have under both political parties failed to build enough homes.”

“Clearly we need to look at the quality of land within Green Belts and need to think about which of these should be preserved.” By implication, he is suggesting that lower quality land can and should be released for development. 

Boys Smith also said he opposes more volume housebuilding that involves “chucking a cul-de-sac in a field.” He wants planning and design codes drafted with community and council involvement so the public can “require what they find beautiful and refuse what they find ugly.”

He may well receive valuable support from the Local Government Association, whose housing spokesperson, Councillor Darren Rodwell, said “People want their local area to have high-quality affordable homes built in the right places, supported by the right infrastructure, and councils stand ready to help the Government to tackle local housing challenges.”

The LGA’s position is that to help increase the speed of local plan-making and housing delivery, the Government should bring forward consultations on a revised National Planning Policy Framework and National Development Management Policies which will form the backbone of a new style of plan-making due in Autumn 2024.

All of which gives me some confidence that we could be moving towards a consensus which is capable of delivering much more housing, of a higher quality and built in a wider variety of spaces, with far greater public involvement in its design and location. This would be a notable achievement, but there is no time to lose and our politicians need to be open to adopting new policies which in the past they would have rejected.