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17 October 2023

Why isn’t Keir Starmer afraid of building on the green belt?

Shifts in voting patterns mean that building rather than blocking housing is now in Labour’s electoral interests.

By Jonn Elledge

Last week’s Labour conference brought many surreal occurrences. Queues to see shadow cabinet ministers reminiscent of boyband concerts. Prominent right-wing journalists bopping along to “Things Can Only Get Better”. It also gave me Covid, so please forgive the fact this column is a) late and b) unhinged.

Perhaps the most unlikely sight was that of Keir Starmer, recently anointed with glitter, actually seeming to take a stand on a progressive policy. The Labour leader, after all, has spent the last three years so determined to show that his party has changed – that it can be trusted by the older, more conservative voters who’ve abandoned it – that he’s steadfastly refused to promise that his government would improve anything. In the last few weeks alone, he’s refused to say he would scrap the two-child benefit cap (even though it’s unpopular and drives children into poverty), or that his government would so much as explore reviving the northern arm of HS2 (even though not doing so makes the land sales that would prevent that resurrection more probable).

In his conference speech, though, and in the interviews that followed, Starmer enthusiastically stepped onto what many have treated as the third rail of British politics. Politicians have often said the easy bit, that Britain needs to build more houses. Only rarely have they been willing to tell voters that this will mean rethinking the green belt and developing some previously undeveloped land. Starmer not only did this, but went on the BBC the next morning to declare himself a “Yimby” (“Yes in my backyard”). Why is it this issue that he’s decided to take a stand on? Where, to be blunt, did he find the nerve? 

It’s true that in the last few years the housing crisis has been upgraded, if that’s the word, to a housing emergency. Britain is currently believed to have a backlog of about 4.3 million homes; it also has far fewer empty homes than most developed countries. The resulting spike in housing costs has meant more homelessness, and more families stuck in poor-quality, under-regulated rental homes. This delays family formation, because people literally can’t afford the space to have kids; that means lower birthrates and a demographic time bomb. It’s also a drag on growth, because our most productive cities can’t grow and companies struggle to recruit staff at wages they can afford to pay. Fix the housing crisis, and you fix a lot of other things, too.

[See also: Are politicians finally about to build on the green belt?]

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It’s equally true that, despite what anti-development groups such as CPRE, the Countryside Charity, suggest, we have no shortage of land on which to build homes. Many cities have green belts vastly bigger than the cities themselves (look at Oxford): around a fifth of Greater London itself is green belt. A 2019 report from the Centre for Cities found that vacant land within walking distance of train stations near major cities – just 1.8 per cent of the green belt – could provide land for over two million homes. Some of this should remain undeveloped because it’s flood plain, or has another current use, or, frankly, because it is beautiful enough to be worth preserving. Large chunks of it, though, are ugly wasteland or agricultural monoculture. The only reason we don’t build there is that we never have before.

All these things are true. But there is almost no site so horrendous that some campaign group, somewhere, won’t fight to protect it; and the electorate in general still loves the idea of the green belt, imagining rolling hills and areas of outstanding natural beauty and rarely understanding the reality. Other leaders have baulked at telling voters the truth on this one, so why hasn’t Starmer?

One possible explanation for this uncharacteristic bravery is necessity. It’s not just that housing is a genuine emergency now: the next Labour government is going to be looking for things it can do to improve the country without spending money. Getting Britain building doesn’t only fit the bill, it should actually generate revenues to spend elsewhere.

But another possibility is that Starmer’s not actually being brave at all. Labour has struggled to remain electorally competitive as its voter base has grown younger and more urban. But that means its voters are now more likely to be on the wrong end of the housing crisis, and tend to cluster in areas where there’s relatively little greenfield land to develop. The areas that do look ripe for development – which combine high housing costs with helpful proximity to London, or other significant economic centres – lie largely in seats which Labour is relatively unlikely to win even on the most optimistic assumptions.

In other words, building rather than blocking may actually be in Labour’s electoral interests. It has the political space to address the issue that the Tories, competing for Nimby voters with the Lib Dems and Greens, never did. But why stop there? George Osborne’s Treasury devised a local funding formula that magically dumped the worst cuts on Labour councils: surely an incoming Labour government could design a formula that drops new towns and green belt developments on areas foolish enough to keep on voting Conservative. The Tories have used housing policies (Right to Buy, Help to Buy) to create new Tory voters; perhaps it’s time Labour did the same.

It’s too early to say whether Starmer’s talk of the “grey belt” will be enough to counter popular perception of the green belt – and too early to say whether he’ll hold his nerve. But it’s nice that someone has finally realised that people who don’t have big houses also get to vote.

[See also: The Greens share the blame for HS2’s demise]

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