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Tighten it, loosen it, or lose it? The future of the green belt will play a crucial role in the next election

Homes on the green belt
Planning Communications and Consultation
politics and planning
green belt

Last week, Sir Keir Starmer set out his ambitious vision for housebuilding, promising to ‘back the builders, not the blockers’. The opposition leader revealed, that, if elected, a Labour Government would grant greater powers to local authorities to build on green belt land, as well as impose new restrictions on foreign buyers of UK property. 

Only a day later, the Prime Minister announced that he would stand by his pledge to protect both the green belt and communities from “top-down” housing targets. The divergent positions of the two leaders are a clear line in the sand ahead of the next general election. The Labour leadership has tried to frame the opposition to housebuilding as ‘nimbyism’, while many Conservatives claim that such opposition is driven by legitimate concern at the scale of developments. 

It has become clear though, that the thorny issue of housing is as divisive internally as it is externally. In an interview with The Sunday Times, Conservative MP Theresa Villiers denied that Tory opposition to housebuilding was the cause of the party’s dire local election results. Villiers, labelled as the “patron saint of nimbyism”, last year led a backbench rebellion that forced Sunak to abandon the government’s housing targets. 

In a sign of the high degree of churn in the government (and in government policy) in recent years, Simon Clarke, Michael Gove’s predecessor as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, called the scrapping of housing targets, “a major mistake” that “panders to the public’s worst instincts.” Likewise, in the Labour Party, over a fifth of MPs, including eight members of the frontbench, have, in the past, spoken out publicly against building on greenbelt land. 

The Renters (Reform) Bill, introduced in Parliament last week, has prompted further division, with the Telegraph reporting a growing concern in the Conservative Party that Michael Gove has declared ‘war on landlords’. Conversely, Keir Starmer welcomed the bill, calling it “broadly right”. The Bill will do nothing, however, to address the critical shortage of housing. Some believe it will have precisely the opposite effect. Marco Longhi, Conservative MP for Dudley North, predicted ‘swathes of landlords leaving the market’. 

These differences lay bare the complexity of legislating on housing and give us a window into why many of the issues around development and planning have been so difficult to resolve over the last decade. The debate also points to the wider divisions currently lining UK politics.  Despite Conservative promises to preserve the greenbelt and protect communities, anti-development voters on 04 May chose the Lib Dems and the Greens instead. With his policy announcement last week, Starmer was hoping to break through to new audiences. In his response, Sunak was focused on winning his audience back.