More green belt blues

While the rest of the world looks on in horror at the gathering climate, nature, food, water, economic and security challenges, Britain’s house builders at least must be purring at their ability to sucker the nation’s senior politicians.

Michael Gove has talked the talk about softening English national planning policies which basically promote car-dependent-sprawl at the expense of both the housing we desperately need and sustainable development. But, to any serious extent, he is yet to walk the Westminster Walk.

Now Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is making ever more concessions to “builders” in its desperation to win back power. The latest one is giving in to developers’ and land promoters’ well-resourced campaign to be allow builders ever more freedom to profit from trashing green belts.

Shadow LUHC secretary Lisa Nandy has suddenly popped up all over the media pushing this idea, even in places like the Telegraph which must set Labour’s traditional supporters’ teeth on edge.

Asked about what she’d said in the Telegraph on Radio 4’s Sunday morning Broadcasting House programme, she said that behind the financial crisis lies a housing crisis.

“There is no answer to this crisis without building more houses which is why I… er, we say we’re unashamedly on the side of the builders not the blockers and that the next Labour government is going to get Britain building again,” she said.

We can safely assume Ms Nandy shares the view of most Labour – and indeed Conservative – politicians that the next election is Labour’s to lose and that she isn’t angling for a well-paid job with the over-resourced PR industry around development and land promotion. She was asked about her commitment to the Telegraph that Labour would order councils to free up green belt land for development, how that would work and how it would win Labour friends in green places.

First, she was keen to clarify one thing.

“Well, we didn’t say that we would order councils to do so, we said we would require them to do so, as part of the biggest transfer of power out of Westminster and Whitehall in modern British history,” she explained.

Council planning departments, reeling from 20 years of being compelled to release inappropriate and unsustainable land for house building by Westminster and Whitehall, may struggle to spot any difference between “order” and “require”. As to whom Ms Nandy thinks power would be transferred to, she was clear: it would be the “builders”.

“We believe there is no greater sign of a broken political system than a government that can’t even meet the basic needs of its citizens for decent secure housing and we’re determined to change that, including by taking on the taboo around a green belt system that allows the nature-rich genuinely green areas of land to be declassified for developers but protects areas of scrub land and waste land and disused petrol stations from being able to be developed because politicians are too afraid to take that on,” she said.

It’s difficult to know where to begin with this early Christmas present to lobbyists. Did she mean “nature-rich genuinely green areas of land” within green belts or outside them? Well, they’re getting trashed for housing in both anyway. Does she really believe the Yimby propaganda that green belts are all scrub, waste land and disused filling stations?

If so, perhaps someone should tell Ms Nandy:-

  • Scrub can be an immensely rich natural environment;
  • “Waste land” can cover all sorts of things (especially when land promoters are defining it) from low-quality brownfield to any land not used for building or agriculture;
  • The NPPF already encourages development on brownfield sites in green belts, like disused garages.

Ms Nandy went on to say some fairly sensible things about social housing and the growing challenge that the growth and disorder of the private rented sector poses, but damage is being done to Labour from infiltration by housing and land promotion lobbyists.

Politicians in both the blue and red corners might do well to remember some painful lessons learned by their predecessors in the 1990s.

In 1992, John Major’s Conservatives didn’t worry too much about leaving problems for the new government as they assumed it would be Labour. In the event, the Conservatives won a majority and had a very uncomfortable five more years in power.

In 1997, Tony Blair’s New Labour were so desperate to win power, they made big concessions to their opponents’ policies and so placed huge limitations on what they could do if elected. In the event, Labour won a huge landslide and was fettered only by the concessions it had made.

I’ve no doubt that investigative journalists are already examining the way lobbyists have infiltrated Labour branches, organisations and media to promote the most profitable forms of house building. Many are operating within plain sight.

Politicians always go a bit doolally as elections approach, but Ms Nandy and Mr Gove should both remember that we don’t live in the comfortable world of the 1960s any more. The gathering emergencies need addressing.

It’s later than we thought.

Jon Reeds