“That bloke,” someone who I assumed I couldn't hear them once said of me, “is obsessed with the green belt.” He's not wrong. It must be very dull for you all.
Anyway, on Tuesday I chaired a Policy Exchange fringe event on housing at the Tory conference in Manchester (yes, I know how that sounds, but this context is relevant, I promise).
The topic was nominally “Can building better homes unlock more homes?” – we were talking architectural standards, rather than wonkish matters of land reform. But, being obsessed, and also a troll, I self-indulgently ended the thing by asking the panel whether we needed to look again at the green belt.
Here's how one of the speakers, Paul Carter, responded:
“Personally I think we do. I think there are some very scrappy parts of the green belt which should be reviewed – and I think there are some sacrosanct parts of the green belt that must be preserved. But I think that saying that there will be no green belt review at all is the wrong thing to do.”
(This is an exact transcript of my tape of the event.)
While support for the green belt remains high among the general public, in housing circles, this isn't a particularly controversial position. Bits of the green belt aren’t actually very green: protecting them at all costs makes it harder to build houses.
Worse, it increases pressure to build on open land inside cities that don’t have green belt designation. Land like playing fields and gardens. So, while not that many people want to rip the whole thing up and start again, quite a few would like to review green belt land on a case by case basis.
If this is such a common position, why am I bothering to report it? Because of who was speaking. Paul Carter is a Conservative councillor, and the leader of Kent County council – a county whose entire western end is covered by green belt.
The green belt. Image: The London Society, with our annotations.
Kent is nicknamed the “garden of England”, incidentally.
In other words, what we have here is a senior Conservative in local government, publicly stating that bundling up everything from Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to gravel car parks and calling them “green belt” is possibly not very helpful in this day and age.
In what may not be a coincidence, Kent has one of the biggest housing crises in the Home Counties.
That said, Carter is just one man, and I don’t imagine his support for a review will change anything any time soon. The housing minister Brandon Lewis unfortunately left the meeting before I did that particular bit of a trolling – but last March he did write this piece for Conservative Home, promising to “maintain our rock-solid protections for the Green Belt”.
As Carter himself continued:
“I know that in higher places they're exceedingly sensitive about green belt release. Which comes back to new towns, new villages on green field away from anybody else, that don't brass off the NIMBYs – because there aren't any NIMBYs there.”
In other words, the green belt isn't going anywhere fast.
One last quote from that meeting. Here's what Chris Walker, Policy Exchange's head of housing and planning, said in response to my question about whether we should rethink the green belt:
“Definitely, yes. I'll just quote a statistic at you – that if we use 10 per cent of the green belt inside the M25, we could build 1m homes.”
I'm just going to leave that there.
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric and tweets as @jonnelledge.