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What is the ‘grey belt’ and how many houses could Labour build?

What is the ‘grey belt’ and how many houses could Labour build?

Image source, Getty Images

Labour has announced plans to build further in the ‘grey belt’, helping to deliver a promise of 1.5 million new homes over the next five years.

English councils should prioritise building on vacant land and in poor quality areas of the Green Belt, according to Finance Minister Rachel Reeves, following a review of planning rules.

What is the ‘grey belt’?

Labour has previously described the grey belt as “poor quality and ugly areas” – including abandoned car parks and wasteland – on parts of protected land known as the green belt.

The Green Belt, established over 70 years ago, covers around 13% of England. Its purpose was to limit the growth of large built-up areas and prevent large cities from merging into each other.

The Labor Party wants the gray zone to be used for new homes, half of which should be intended for affordable housing.

It cited a disused garage in Tottenham, north London, as an example of a green belt that cannot be developed into housing due to its zoning.

Image source, Siobhain McDonagh MP

Image caption, Labour says abandoned garage in Tottenham is green belt that cannot be developed

However, Sam Stafford of the Home Builders Federation says it is vital that the new grey area is clearly defined.

“If you don’t properly define what the grey belt is, what’s to stop existing green space from becoming ‘messy’ and ‘ugly’ just so it can be sold for development? If it’s going to be a new class of land, it needs to be defined in an objective and robust way.”

For example, former golf courses and land used for mineral extraction could be designated as grey areas, Mr Stafford suggests.

How big is the gray belt and how many homes can be built?

Since the gray belt is a new category, there is no official data on its size.

11,000 previously developed sites have been identified, representing less than 1% of the existing green belt.

The locations are mainly concentrated in the south of England, with just over 40% in the London Green Belt.

According to Knight Frank, a total of 100,000-200,000 new family homes could be built on the sites.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Labour says councils in England will be expected to prioritise building in grey belt areas

However, Mr Stafford believes that building in both the grey zone and on additional derelict land in urban areas will be necessary to meet housing demand in England.

“There simply isn’t enough land in the major cities to meet all the housing needs,” he said.

To support his claim, Stafford points to a 2022 report by planning consultancy Lichfields, which concluded that even if all identified wasteland in England were built to full capacity, it would mean an additional 1.4 million homes.

That is less than the housing targets set by both major parties before the election, with Labour promising 1.5 million new homes in England and the Conservatives 1.6 million.

Are houses in the gray belt affordable?

However, Knight Frank’s Charlie Hart says this could be difficult to achieve as inflation has significantly increased costs for developers.

Katie Townsend of the think tank Centre for London says the plan is to allow private developers to build homes in the grey zone, but the government should consider intervening.

“The best way to ensure that affordable housing is built, especially social housing, is to increase government investment,” she says.

Is there public support for building in the gray belt?

Labour had been raising the idea of ​​creating a grey zone long before the election.

Building in the green belt is controversial.

However, Ms Townsend of the Centre for London says attitudes may be changing, pointing to a poll showing that half of Londoners are in favour of strategic development on low-quality green belt sites, while only 19% are against it.

Others disagree. Rural charity CPRE Oxfordshire, for example, says land is “already under enormous pressure”.

Director Helen Marshall said: “Ten years ago we commissioned research which showed that over 70% of Oxfordshire wanted the green belt to remain undeveloped.

“Ten years later, support for the Green Belt has risen to over 80%.”

However, Knight Frank’s Mr Hart says the Green Belt used to be seen as a ‘no-go area’, but that perception is changing.

“It was invented a long time ago and the world is very different now. We are now investigating whether it is still suitable for the modern world.”

Additional reporting by Gerry Georgieva