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Grey Belt demystified: From green to grey

Everything you need to know about Labour’s grey belt plans

11 July 2024
4 minutes read
Aerial view of agricultural fields with visible boundary lines and minimal vegetation, illustrating the concept of grey belt land. The image highlights areas of low environmental quality within the Green Belt, suitable for sustainable housing development as part of Labour’s grey belt plans to address the UK's housing crisis.

The government will soon announce pro-development reforms to liberalise planning and encourage housebuilding, focusing on developing ‘grey belt’ areas as well as other strategies to address the housing crisis.

In this article, you will learn the concept of the grey belt, how it fits into Labour’s housing strategy, and whether it will help to address the UK's chronic housing shortage.

Let’s begin by uncovering exactly what grey belt land means.

What is grey belt?

The ‘grey belt’ is a concept introduced by the Labour Party to identify poor-quality, underutilised sections within the Green Belt. These areas don’t have significant levels of biodiversity and aren’t used for public enjoyment and as such, are seen as potential sites for new housing developments to address the UK’s acute housing crisis.

Labour’s planning reforms aim to utilise these grey belt lands to contribute to their ambitious target of building 1.5 million homes. These plans are intended to address the housing crisis while also preserving the integrity of more valuable Green Belt land.

What makes land grey belt?

There is not yet a regulation that determines what classifies land as grey belt, nor is there a standardised method for calculating its low quality. The term “low quality” is often used subjectively, without clear criteria for environmental or aesthetic value. 

Unfortunately, unless the new Labour government introduces a rigorous, objective framework in the determination of grey belt land, it will complicate policy implementation, risk inconsistent application across different regions, and slow down the housebuilding process.

A large amount of Green Belt is not green

One common Green Belt misconception is that all Green Belt land is verdant and pristine. While there is no denying that much of the Green Belt is truly green, there is also a large amount that isn’t as lush as we are led to believe. In reality, only 59% of it is agricultural land, with much of the remaining land being former industrial sites or land of little environmental value.


In fact, 76% of London’s Green Belt consists of low environmental quality land, containing defunct agricultural buildings and areas with minimal biodiversity. Additionally, a large part of the Green Belt is privately owned and not accessible to the public, challenging its role as a public resource.

Green Belt policy is not for environmental protection

Though many people believe that the Green Belt exists to protect wildlife, special landscapes, and historic assets, the reality is that the Green Belt policy isn’t primarily concerned with environmental preservation; its primary purpose is to contain the expansion of cities and prevent urban sprawl. 

With this in mind, the term 'green' can be misleading, as the designation and protection of Green Belt land is based on its location rather than its environmental or scientific value.

How big is the grey belt?

According to The Times, 3% of England’s Green Belt has the potential to be considered grey belt, which includes previously developed land such as former industrial sites and quarries. This amounts to about 46,871 hectares of land with significant potential for housing development. 

The Times highlights that 6% of the Green Belts in Birmingham and Blackpool could be classified as grey belt. Similarly, Cheltenham and Gloucester, have 5% and South and West Hampshire have 4% of Green Belt land that could be deemed grey.

Overview of the Green Belt reforms

As part of their Green Belt reform, Labour pledges to prioritise developing grey belt and brownfield land, grant new devolved planning powers to regions, and reform compulsory purchase rules for faster land assembly. 

Angela Rayner, the Housing Secretary, will soon write to local councils and planning authorities to clarify expectations, including comprehensive local plans and Green Belt boundary reviews.

The new government will also identify locations to create a series of new towns to help alleviate housing shortages. This involves building entirely new communities with integrated infrastructure, public services, and green spaces. The objective of these new large-scale towns is to provide high-quality, affordable housing and foster sustainable residential-led developments.

The relaxations in the planning process for building within the Green Belt will be introduced very soon. These will be guided by new ‘golden rules’ which include:

  • Brownfield first: Within the Green Belt, any brownfield land must be prioritised for development.  
  • Grey belt second: Poor-quality and ‘ugly’ areas of the Green Belt should be clearly prioritised over nature-rich, environmentally valuable land in the Green Belt. At present, beyond the existing brownfield category, the system doesn’t differentiate between them. This category will be distinct from brownfield with a wider definition.  
  • Affordable homes: Plans must target at least 50% affordable housing delivery when land is released.
  • Boost public services and infrastructure: Plans must boost public services and local infrastructure, like more school and nursery places, new health centres and GP appointments. 
  • Improve genuine green spaces: Labour rules out building on genuine nature spots and requires plans to include improvements to existing green spaces, making them accessible to the public, with new woodland, parks and playing fields. Plans should meet high environmental standards.

CPRE's view on the grey belt

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), a lobbying group with strong beliefs against building in the Green Belt, has expressed nuanced and sometimes mixed reactions to the concept of grey belt development. In short, CPRE's view on grey belt could be described and summarised as cautiously supportive. 

Although CPRE acknowledged the necessity of developing some genuinely low-quality grey belt land, the group has consistently advocated for prioritising brownfield sites, asserting that there is enough brownfield land to build all the homes we could possibly need. 

But, the reality is there is simply not enough brownfield land in the UK to accommodate the demand for housing. It is calculated that even if all brownfield land with development potential was redeveloped, it would supply only 970,000 dwellings. So, if you went down that path, it would only provide enough housing to meet demand for the next four years. What happens when those years have passed?

Furthermore, CPRE believes that some areas, even if currently degraded, have the potential to be rehabilitated into valuable habitats. Therefore, their suggestion is to evaluate each site on its individual merits, considering its potential for environmental restoration and community use.

The organisation also warned against the risk of speculative development, where landowners might deliberately degrade land to get it reclassified as grey belt, thus qualifying it for development. Therefore, CPRE argued that stringent environmental standards and comprehensive planning are essential to ensure that grey belt development does not lead to environmental degradation.

We believe that an independent commission can be established to provide the necessary oversight and uniformity to address these concerns effectively. This body could ensure that grey belt classifications are made transparently and equitably, preventing unethical practices and ensuring that environmental integrity is maintained.

Our views on the grey belt

We believe grey belt designations should be applied to sites that do not fulfil the five foundational purposes of the Green Belt. These purposes are:

  • To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas.
  • To prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another.
  • To safeguard the countryside from encroachment.
  • To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns.
  • To assist in urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

An often-overlooked point is that allocating grey belt land for development requires navigating the complex dynamics between local priorities and national standards. Because local authorities often focus on immediate economic benefits, this approach can overshadow the need for long-term environmental sustainability. 

Conversely, national guidelines and design codes that standardise practices across regions might not deliver the type of relevant housing solutions effectively, leading to a one-size-fits-all approach that lacks local context, the unique characteristics and needs of individual local authorities. 

Another critical challenge in implementing grey belt policies is managing regional disparities. An analysis conducted by Knight Frank, which identified over 11,000 grey belt sites across England, also highlights that these sites are not evenly distributed. Remarkably, 41% of these sites are concentrated within London’s Green Belt, with significant numbers also found in Greater Manchester, Birmingham, and South and West Yorkshire. 

This uneven distribution implies that some regions may gain more from grey belt development than others, potentially intensifying regional disparities in housing availability and economic growth. Addressing these disparities requires careful planning and targeted support for regions with fewer grey belt opportunities.

The simple truth is that if we are to meet the growing demand for housing in the UK, it is essential that we release some Green Belt land for development. The release of even a small percentage of the Green Belt, including low-quality grey belt land, could significantly help accommodate several years' worth of housing needs but only if planned and designed holistically.

As one of the first major announcements expected from the new government, Labour will restore mandatory housing targets on local councils, which were relaxed by the previous Conservative government. To that end, by local councils releasing publicly owned grey belt land to national housebuilders and SME developers, the delivery of new sustainable communities can be significantly accelerated.

How Urbanist Architecture can help you

We are a multidisciplinary team of architects and town planners with years of experience working on Green Belt projects and we’d love to learn more about your project.

We are passionate about helping clients make the most of their plots and have a knack for working with tricky sites. Plus, we have a 97% success rate in gaining planning permission, a number we credit to our highly effective six-step planning strategy

If you need assistance with your next project, or if you’d like to learn more about our tight-knit team, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Out now: Green Light to Green Belt Developments

The Green Belt is one of the most contentious and misunderstood pieces of planning policy in England and it’s a topic we at Urbanist Architecture have a lot of experience working with. For this reason, we decided to pool our learnings and pen a book delving deep into the Green Belt from every possible angle.

‘Green Light to Green Belt Developments’ investigates the policy's biggest winners and losers and explores its connections to climate change and the housing crisis, as well as what the future might hold, particularly now a new Labour government is in power. It also looks at the history of the policy and how it’s managed to endure while other policies have evolved and adapted with the times. Of course, it also identifies the exceptions and circumstances that exist for permitting development in the Green Belt, so you can better your chances of gaining planning permission.

We’ve written this book for anyone seeking a more rounded understanding of one of England's most debated urban planning issues, making it accessible to both industry professionals and the general public.

Whether you are a landowner in the Green Belt wishing to understand the potential for land value uplift or a developer planning to build new homes in the Green Belt, this book is an essential read. Order your copy now.

Nicole Ipek Guler, Charted Town Planner and Director of Urbanist Architecture
AUTHOR

Nicole I. Guler

Nicole leads our planning team and specialises in tricky projects, whether those involve listed buildings, constrained urban sites or Green Belt plots. She has a very strong track of winning approval through planning appeals.

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