The greenbelt is intended as a vehicle for promoting environmental growth and protecting green spaces by inhibiting housebuilding on certain land. However, given our ever growing population, this rigidity is unsustainable and fast becoming problematic. The idea of the greenbelt is, at its core, a positive one, albeit one that needs modernising when it comes to its implementation.
A False Dichotomy
Believe it or not, it is possible to promote green initiatives and environmental causes alongside mass housing delivery. The question is where and how? Starmer’s latest pledge that Labour would build on the greenbelt may be viewed as a step backward in the UK’s battle to achieve net zero by 2050. However, this could in fact be the necessary vehicle to be more radical and ambitious if the execution of Starmer’s words are executed more effectively and sustainably.
What Is Radical?
A 15 point lead in the polls should provide credence to Starmer’s plans and therefore a licence to be more radical if he is able to ensure his electoral campaign manages expectations without being reckless. It is right that Starmer has to be politically pragmatic from an electoral perspective, given the size of his lead. We can only hope that more concrete policy plans will be outlined closer to next autumn.
Radical is interpreted as a scary word, or something with negative connotations and highly unrealistic. But it is more of a measure of how drastic the change that is required. Even the lacklustre 300,000 homes per year promised in the Tory manifesto of 2019 does not look like it is taking shape, let alone standard housing targets or sufficient regulation. The backbench backlash gives Starmer an opportunity to show a united front and ensure housebuilding is central to the first term of a Labour government.
The ambition for greater devolution would be paramount in Starmer’s wish for local councils to have more powers to build new homes. His narrative of ‘backing the builders’ is a positive recognition for a strong sense of direction from Labour’s housing plans. It is critical however that Starmer shows a measured approach, so that the green belt is not ripped up but more adjusted to allow for greater flexibilities in the planning system.
Building On The Greenbelt
Labour would grant local areas the opportunity to build houses on the green belt, but only if development would not detract from ‘the beauty of our countryside’. It is necessary to recognise that ‘beauty’ is a subjective measure, so it makes it more difficult for Labour and the wider public to assess what this constitutes. As essential as this messaging is to Starmer’s pledge, we should be more proactive in incentivising positive green initiatives, planting trees and reducing carbon emissions in specific locations to ensure that green belt building is counteracted with positive and creative initiatives to improve air quality and establish more green spaces. The two are not mutually exclusive, it is not simply “to build on the green belt or not to build.”
The key to how this policy lands will be the framing. Starmer has outlined economic opportunity and fairness argument as his lead strategy, which should provide optimism for a generation of hopeful first-time buyers where the current status quo for homeowners is very bleak. Housing is the most cross-cutting sector that will drive how a future Labour government is able to implement their policies. Families are unable to get a fresh start without providing stable accommodation and building independence from their parents’ generation. School places and the overall generation of new towns play a huge factor in this, so it is critical that Starmer gets this right.
The broken system is about giving local authorities autonomy to make decisions and approve new developments. This would not mean terminating any building on brownfield sites, but it is clear the current restrictive system is not sustainable in the longer term. The issue of planning will be a dividing line at the next general election. It will be interesting to see if Labour imposes yearly construction targets, or whether that would be deemed politically inconvenient should they not live up to the billing.
It is important to understand that targets alone don’t deliver homes, but local autonomy and radical policy implementation on a mass scale will be the greatest driver for Starmer’s plans. Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, previously stated her opposition to building on the green belt and urged the need for more social housing so it is critical Labour can get on the same page before launching their manifesto. Greenbelt policy ultimately cannot be effectively implemented without the reform of planning laws and releasing land to build more housing.
An Important Legacy
The greenbelt policy is a legacy of Atlee’s government and should not be discredited. It was initially designed to protect the environment in working-class urban constituencies. It is right that the greenbelt provides an opportunity to give populations of big industrial cities access to nature and fresh air, although it has now resulted in the unsustainable decrease of city dwelling space. The policy needs to be modernised to reflect today’s society and growing spatial changes between generations and local communities.
Greenbelts occupy approximately 12-13% of the area of England, and it is regressive to say that there should never be alterations of these spaces. The principle of preserving green spaces can still exist whilst delivering on new homes, specifically good quality housing that is affordable in today’s climate. Starmer’s ambition to expand homeownership is one that is popular and transformative, so we will have to play the waiting game to see the policy detail in these proposals.
Alfie Cairns works in housing policy and legislation, previously in the education sector. He joined the Fabian Society in late 2022 and has a keen interest in progressive politics, economic development, education and social mobility. Alfie is currently co-chair of a school governors board and has previously volunteered with climate action campaigns, and racial justice organisations including Every Future Foundation.