Housing Column: Labour must not try to out Tory the Tories on the Green Belt

'Brownfield sites alone will “almost certainly never be enough to meet the country’s housing need”.

Christopher Worrall is a housing columnist for LFF. He is on the Executive Committee of the Labour Housing Group, Co-Host of the Priced Out Podcast, and Chair of the Local Government and Housing Member Policy Group of the Fabian Society. 

It would appear the role of UK Housing Minister is now akin to a crab walking into a part-time job. Nothing more than a side hustle. The revolving door of housing ministers, 15 of which since 2010, has come under criticism from affordable housing campaign group Priced Out.

The campaign discussed the appointment of Rachel Maclean. She replaces Lucy Frazer, the former housing minister who had spent merely 90 days in post. Priced Out Director, Freddie Poser, took to GB News stating that “nobody is staying in the role and paying attention to the important issue of housing”, he claimed “a real political heavyweight should be in that job” and felt “now it is seen as a junior position that you can just get and move up”.

It comes at a time where evidence shows the Conservatives have managed to practically erase first-time buyers from the property market. In 2022, the number of people getting onto the housing ladder fell to a five-year low. According to analysis by Savills, older millennial homeowners, also known as buyers in their 30s, are now the most vulnerable to being susceptible to crippling financial woes. Hairbrained policies involving state financialization of mortgages, namely through schemes such as Help to Buy, have encouraged older millennials to take up disproportionately large loans.

Now, many of the unfortunate cohort may be forced to sell up if they find new repayments unmanageable when they come to re-mortgage. Mortgage rates have tripled following the Kamikwaze budget last September, causing housing costs soar. Those refinancing in 2023 at higher interest rates will have havoc wreaked on both their savings and levels of debt. Worrying times for the lost generation.

If a Truss-induced mortgage repayment crisis was not enough, planning under the Tories continues to be a complete disaster. Professor Thiemo Fetzer, of the University of Warwick, produced research which found planning restrictions in conservation areas have been directly responsible for 3.2 million tonnes of excess domestic carbon dioxide emissions. This equates to about 5 per cent of all emissions from heating homes, excluding heat for water or cooking. Nine in ten owners in conservation areas state planning restrictions are a barrier to improving energy efficiency, despite 86 per cent of owners in such areas willing to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

But all of these woes were completely missed at a recent Westminster Hall debate put forward by Conservative MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, Wendy Morton. The debate on Thursday 9th February concerned ‘Brownfield Development and Green Belt’. It came after an e-petition with 13,947 signatures, mostly from a small number of constituencies outside London and other English urban conurbations, called to ‘Ban developments on Green belt and Greenfield sites across the country’.

Morton, who had just 13 constituents sign the petition, opened the debate citing the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), stating “the Government attaches great importance to Green Belts”. Morton then went onto praise the CPRE, the countryside charity, who she argues “rightly identifies” that “the Green Belt has never before faced such serious threat as large sections of land disappear under new developments”.  The CPRE has regularly updated its ‘State of Brownfield’ report, which in 2022 believed there were 1.2 million homes which could be built on previously developed brownfield sites instead.

Morton called for “a firm presumption against giving planning permission for additional greenfield sites for development, compared to those already in local plans”. A position explicitly recommended by the CPRE. Morton warned “our Green Belt will be lost forever” if we do not follow “brownfield first”. Theresa Villers, who had 77 constituents sign the petition, echoed much of Morton’s points, calling for curbs on the Mayor of London’s powers to impose housing targets on boroughs.

Labour’s Margarat Greenwood of Wirral West, who had 9 constituents sign the petition, claimed people in Wirral West “value the Green Belt extremely highly, and they have made it clear they do not want to see it built on”. This is unsurprising, as in Thurstaston in the west of Wirrall, not a single child was identified as experiencing deprivation. Yet 10-miles east, children in Bidston and St James ward are some of the top 2% deprived in the country. Sadly, rich communities explicitly exclude others benefitting from living in less deprived areas through NIMBYism. (Not in My Back Yard).

Greenwood has previously claimed the Green Belt is “not safe in the hands of the Conservatives”, which is sad to see. A Labour MP should not fall into the elephant trap of trying to out Tory the Tories when it comes to building on the Green Belt. Especially when the facts do not match the evidence. In 2022 England had 1,638,150 hectares designated as “Green Belt”. This is higher than when Tony Blair left office in 2007, which at the time had 1,635,670 hectares designated. The Conservatives have in effect increased the Green Belt by 0.15% over 15 years.

For context, over the same period, England’s population has actually increased by 10%. Green Belt has been effectively weaponised by NIMBY campaign groups and weak politicians who ignore the damage it has done to housing supply.  Meanwhile, in the past, allocations of sites between brownfield and greenfield were debated in percentage terms. Yet under the Tories in 2023 we find ourselves, along with Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, calling for outright bans on greenfield development.

Interestingly, Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister, Matthew Pennycook (who had 4 constituents sign the petition) provided a well-reasoned contribution to the debate. He cited counter research from Lichfield’s that proves brownfield alone will “almost certainly never be enough to meet the country’s housing need”. Going on to say the “evidence on that fact is perfectly clear”.  However, new Housing Minister Rachel Maclean seemed to be willing to ignore the evidence, she instead agreed with the views Morton and Villiers that “we should do everything we can to protect our precious Green Belt”.

She also set out several reasons why “the Government have pursued an unambiguous ‘brownfield first’ approach to development”. Primarily, because she believed such sites already benefit from mains drainage, power, and road access. The new Housing Minister seems to think this country is somehow unable or unwilling to procure new infrastructure for new development. Maclean then went onto cite some age old myths about social and environmental benefits Green Belt’s provide over brownfield, which have been debunked time and time again. Notably by Professor Paul Cheshire in his report ‘Turning Houses into Gold’.

In the end, Pennycook summed up the governments ‘brownfield first’ position quite well. Nothing more than a “rhetorical commitment”. He criticised the amendments to the national planning policy as one that will “ensure that fewer houses are built in England over the coming years”, arguing moves to avoid meeting objectively assessed housing need is a “woeful abdication of responsibility”. He did however, questionably suggest housing growth could be managed through regional and sub-regional frameworks. A previous Labour pursuit that has failed quite miserably.

Above all else, Pennycook definitely won this Westminster Hall debate. Many of his counterparts had relied on flimsy evidence and weak rationale. Yet whether Maclean or Pennycook weigh-in to be the political heavyweights affordable housing campaign groups like Priced Out wants to see, still remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, if Keir Starmer’s Labour are to be serious about building the homes the British people need, our country needs a full-time Housing Minister who is prepared to cut the Gordian knot the Green Belt has tied our planning system up in and release more land for development.

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