Rishi Sunak's desperate attempt at populism doesn't protect green land in the way he would like you to think it does, says Tom Harwood

Let’s talk about housing, specifically what's up with Rishi Sunak’s new housing policy

Published Last updated

Let’s talk about housing. Specifically what's up with Rishi Sunak’s new housing policy.

He pledges to preserve the green belt in aspic, banning councils from amending it, preventing development around the dozen or so cities the green belt currently covers.

He also says that any new housebuilding should be done on brownfield land.

Which may come as a surprise to his local council, as the very same Rishi Sunak applied for planning permission to build a new single storey sporting complex on a field near his grade II listed home only last year.

In Rishi Sunak’s world only he is allowed to build on fields. No one else can.

But beyond the hypocrisy let’s explore this idea in its own terms.

Because to most of us, preventing any green belt amendments might at face value seem like a nice thing.

Well let's turn to a case study in York, where controversy erupted earlier this year, when a developer proposed to construct up to 158 homes on land sandwiched between a housing estate, a duel carriageway and the railway lines. Why was there uproar? Well this scrap of land had been designated as part of the green belt back in the 1940s.

Tom Harwood has criticised the Tory leadership hopeful's housing policy.
Tom Harwood has criticised the Tory leadership hopeful's housing policy.

Fortunately the council in the end saw sense, the green belt amended, and the homes were approved. Yet under Rishi Sunak’s policy, this peculiar cut off bit land by the road and the railway would stay forever undeveloped and unloved.

But surely that is just an anomaly, right? The rest of the green belt is in reality the rolling fields our minds go to when we think of England?

Not quite.

This is where the green belt actually is.

Frozen land around a dozen or so cities that are deemed to be important.

It does not include those areas of outstanding natural beauty in England that we know so well.

It does not cover the Chilterns, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, the Peak District, the Cotswolds, the South Downs, Dartmoor, Thetford, or the New Forest.

Rishi needs a rethink, says Tom Harwood
Rishi needs a rethink, says Tom Harwood

None of those areas are greenbelt. Most green land is not green belt. And some green belt is not green land.

No, the most beautiful parts of our country, the parts that protecting perhaps matters most – are entirely distinct from the green belt.

Yet I get the sneaking feeling that when we think of the green belt, our minds erroneously but understandably go to those Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

But what did I mean when I said that some green belt is not green land?

A project to build 40 social rented homes was rejected from this scrap of concrete because it has green belt status.

This junk yard is some of London’s green belt.

And so is this tip.

And even this car wash.

In fact, a former Bradford Councillor took to social media yesterday to dispel some green belt myths.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are vying for the top job in Government.
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are vying for the top job in Government.

Simon Cooke was a councillor for 24 years, and took to Twitter to share the reality of what the green belt – just in his ward – really looks like.

It included the site of an old mill, several scrap yards, a car park, an empty chicken slaughterhouse, and some empty unused buildings. Unable to be redeveloped of course.

And remember, all of this is green belt, all in just one council ward.

Yes, some green belt simply isn't green at all. And we might all be better off with a rationalisation, a reclassification.

Classifying some of our genuinely precious areas of natural beauty as Green Belt, and freeing up some of the ugliest most concrete blighted, road or rail-side bits of what is erroneously called the green belt right now.

Here's a perhaps surprising fact: In 1979 the green belt covered 721,500 hectares of England

By 2020 that had more than doubled to 1.6 million hectares of England.

It is possible to enhance protections, to rationalise the system, but none of that can be done with unthinking pledges that the green belt can never ever be touched. Not even the concrete bits.

Sunak's desperate attempt at populism is wrong. It doesn't protect green land in the way he would like you to think it does. And it will make it even harder for younger people to get on the housing ladder.

And that in and of itself an existential question for the Conservative Party. Without enough homes, with young people stuck in renting traps, with nothing of their own to conserve. The Tory Party will find it harder and harder to win their votes.

Any leader serious about a home owning democracy, serious about winning elections, and frankly serious about Conservatism - would not trumpet big government clumsy planning policy that prevents sensible development.

Rishi needs a rethink.