Rachel Reeves risks 'undermining' green belt with planning reforms

Rachel Reeves’ plans to build on the so-called “grey belt” risk undermining the green belt and damaging important wildlife corridors, the Yorkshire Post has been told.

The new Chancellor said in her first major speech yesterday that she is prepared for “short-term political pain to fix Britain’s foundations” by ripping up planning rules to build more homes and critical infrastructure. The new Labour government has pledged 1.5 million homes in the five-year parliament, and claims that this will help turbocharge economic growth. Ms Reeves will reintroduce mandatory house building targets for local authorities and end the ban on on-shore wind farms.

Part of Labour’s proposals include a review of green belt boundaries, which will be led by Deputy Prime Minister Angela Rayner. These are buffer zones around cities and built-up areas of parkland, which limit building to prevent urban sprawl. It is separate from green field sites, which are fields and farmland in the countryside. There are huge green belt spaces in West and South Yorkshire around Leeds and Sheffield, as well as encompassing York.

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“We must acknowledge that trade-offs always exist,” the Chancellor said. “Any development may have environmental consequences, place pressure on services and rouse voices of local opposition, but we will not succumb to a status quo which responds to the existence of trade-offs by always saying ‘no’.”

Chancellor Rachel Reeves speaks to media during her visit to the Oval Village project after announcing planning reforms. Credit: Lucy North/PA WireChancellor Rachel Reeves speaks to media during her visit to the Oval Village project after announcing planning reforms. Credit: Lucy North/PA Wire
Chancellor Rachel Reeves speaks to media during her visit to the Oval Village project after announcing planning reforms. Credit: Lucy North/PA Wire

Ms Reeves also wants to encourage building on the so-called “grey belt”, which refers to parts of the green belt, such as wasteland and old car parks, which appear like brownfield sites. No10 refused to say whether this would become an official designation of land. Experts have warned this could undermine the green belt’s purpose.

Stacey Cougill, director at sustainability consultancy Eight Versa, told the Yorkshire Post: “The proposal risks eroding the fundamental purposes of green belt. Even 'low-value' green belt land often serves to prevent urban sprawl and maintain the separation between settlements.” She explained that the “policy might inadvertently encourage the very sprawl that green belts were designed to prevent”.

Ms Cougill added: “While the plan aims to protect 'genuine green space', it potentially undervalues the ecological importance of seemingly low-quality green belt land. These areas often provide important wildlife corridors and ecosystem services.” While the environmental expert did not dispute the need for more houses, she also warned that the lack of a clear, objective definition of “grey belt” could result in protracted disputes and legal challenges.

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The Tory Cabinet member overseeing planning on North Yorkshire Council, Coun Mark Crane, said: “I personally think there are enough places to build in this country without going into the green belt. Some bits of green belt are nonsense, I agree with that, but a lot of green belt is there for a very good reason and people appreciate it.

“What she [Reeves] will find is that if she starts to build on it, she will have a heck of local opposition to it, wherever that green belt is, whether it’s in North Yorkshire or Surrey. She will find there’s a lot of flack coming her way.” He urged the Chancellor to look at the hundreds of thousands of unfulfilled planning permissions and ensure that there are enough trained tradespeople to build the houses.

However, Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, sought to calm concerns about green belt development. He said: “The beautiful rolling hills of Yorkshire are not under threat of development. Sites which hold little environmental value should not be exempted from development because of anachronistic rules which do not serve the interests of our communities, especially given the lack of housing.”

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