It is not necessary to wait until the Conservative Party publishes its formal election Manifesto to know its policy on greenbelt housebuilding. We have known what it will be since 4th October 2014, when Eric Pickles and Brandon Lewis issued a Press Release through the Department for Communities and Local Government stating that the government (read Tory Party in this context) is determined to protect the greenbelt from development – you can read it here:
The Press Release states that there is plenty of brownfield land available for development and that should be prioritised. Eric Pickles is quoted as saying:
“This government has been very clear that when planning for new buildings, protecting our precious green belt must be paramount. Local people don’t want to lose their countryside to urban sprawl, or see the vital green lungs around their towns and cities [lost] to unnecessary development.”
From Brandon Lewis:
We have put Local Plans at the heart of the reformed planning system, so councils and local people can now decide where development should and shouldn’t go.”
New planning guidance issued by the same Department on 6th October states that greenbelt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional cases, through the preparation or review of a local plan. Furthermore, the guidance makes it clear that just because a local authority may identify a need for new housing through a “strategic housing market assessment”, it would not be justified in using greenbelt land to meet that need.
The Tories’ policy on greenbelt housebuilding as we approach the next election is therefore absolutely clear. There would be no such building under a new Tory government. It is conceivable that the policy could be adjusted through negotiation to form a coalition if the election produces a Tory minority administration, but that would depend on the coalition partner (or partners) being prepared to make the greenbelt a ‘red line’ in the coalition negotiations. That seems unlikely based on what we currently know about the other parties’ policies.
It is disappointing that the Tories have nailed their mast so clearly to the cause of prohibiting housebuilding on the greenbelt. There appeared to be some possibility of movement on the issue when Nick Boles was Planning Minister between 2012 and 2014. In a speech reported by the Stamford Mercury on 10th January 2013, he said:
There is only one choice for a Conservative. To accept that we are going to have to build on previously undeveloped land. But to resolve that we will make these decisions locally, and that we will build beautiful places like we used to. Like they’ve done in the last few years with strong local support on a greenfield site at Newhall in Harlow. That way England can remain the green and pleasant land we all love.”
Nick Boles also said that “nothing that this government has done will undermine the protection of National Parks, SSSIs, AONBs and the Green Belt”. Nonetheless, his willingness to build on “greenfield” sites was an indication that he understood the need to build some new housing in areas that have not previously been developed. He also countered in his speech the ideas that it would be possible to create sufficient new housing by making better use of vacant properties, building on brownfield sites or forcing developers to use up their land banks.
It was therefore not a surprise when Nick Boles was replaced as Planning Minister in July 2014 by Brandon Lewis. Nick Boles is now Minister for Skills and Equalities, but he continues to take an interest in housing. His MP website features an article on Housing dated 19th September 2014 in which he states that “for several decades now successive governments have failed to build enough new homes.” Interestingly in referring to “successive governments” he does not exclude the present Coalition Government in which he is a Minister!
Unfortunately Nick Boles does not control Tory Party housing policy. However, it is certain that there are other Tory MPs who share his views. Hopefully one day they will prevail and bring about a change in the Party’s current policy, but certainly not before the next election.