“We will protect the Green Belt.” So said the Conservatives’ general election manifesto. That was welcomed by many voters, and by this newspaper, since it suggested a recognition of the strong and legitimate wish of the public to preserve the countryside from harmful development.
So it is extremely disappointing that ministers are now attempting to water down planning rules to allow thousands of homes to be built on Green Belt land. It is all the more disappointing that their proposed rules were published without fanfare or public ministerial comment. That low-key approach does not engender confidence in the Government to act in good faith.
It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that Britain is not building enough houses for the growing number of British households and that action must be taken in response. But ministers seem to want to use only one tool, the planning system, to fix what is a multifaceted problem. Instead of attempting once again to dilute communities’ ability to reject developments they believe unsuitable, ministers should take a broader view. Demand for property is heavily concentrated in the south-east of England. What can be done to change that? Immigration, divorce and the growing number of older people living alone all increase “household formation”, meaning greater demand for homes. What is the proper response?
Answering such questions is more important to good housing policy than sly tinkering to slant the rules in favour of property developers, who in any case are already sitting on more than 200,000 plots of land which they have not built on; the low rate of house building is not a simple story about a shortage of land.
There may well be a case for sensible reform of the Green Belt rules, which do, after all, date back to the Thirties. But such reforms should only be implemented after an open and respectful conversation with all those concerned – especially those who live in the areas affected. Instead, the Government appears more inclined to proceed by stealth, hoping either to bypass or ignore the legitimate concerns of residents. That will not do.
During the last Parliament, ministers attempted planning reform in an equally dubious manner and the resulting anger among their loyal supporters forced them to think again. They should learn from that experience now, before they are driven into another painful retreat.