Rural areas face threat of 400,000 new homes

Nearly 400,000 homes will be built on greenfield sites in the south of England over the next five years, according to a new analysis of planning policy.

Andrew Ellson, George Grylls Ryan Watts

Huge parts of the countryside could be paved over by councils to meet revised housebuilding targets, the data suggests.

Cornwall alone would have to build more than 11,000 homes on rural land and areas such as Buckinghamshire and Central Bedfordshire will each have to create at least 10,000 plots.

Less development will be needed in the north of England, with half as many new homes per head of population in “red wall” constituencies as in the rest of the country, The Times has found. This is because the government’s formula assumes that more homes are needed where prices are higher. The south also has fewer brownfield sites.

The figures have reignited concerns on the Tory back benches that planning reforms will alienate Conservative voters in the shires while undermining commitments made to the north.

“You can’t level up the north of the country by concreting over the southeast,” said Damian Green, Theresa May’s de facto deputy when she was prime minister.

Theresa Villiers, the former environment secretary, said: “Despite significant changes to the government’s housing algorithm, there is still far too much pressure to build in London and the south. Cramming more and more homes into the south will do nothing to deliver the government’s promises on levelling up the north.”

Tory backbenchers rebelled last year over a “mutant algorithm”, which they believed placed too much emphasis on development in southern areas.

An updated “Standard Method” for calculating housing need was published in December. The new analysis cross-referenced the revised targets against each area’s capacity to build homes on brownfield sites, which local authorities are required to publish. This gave a figure for the number of homes in each local authority that must be built on greenfield sites to meet the targets.

Greenfield land is defined as undeveloped land in a city or rural area that is used either for agriculture or landscape design or left to evolve naturally. Brownfield land is previously developed land that is not in use, such as an abandoned industrial area.

The analysis shows that greenfield sites will be needed to accommodate 193,724 homes in London, 107,000 homes in the southeast and 69,000 in the southwest over the next five years. It also suggests that there will be no need to build on greenfield areas in the northwest, northeast or Yorkshire because these areas will have to build fewer homes and have more brownfield sites.

Jonathan Jones, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which commissioned the research, said: “The planning bill flies in the face of levelling-up ambitions and will lead to a huge loss of greenfield, including green belt in the southeast and London, while leaving brownfield to rot in the north.

“Access to green space and nature near by has become more and more important for our health and wellbeing but the analysis shows the planning bill would force local authorities to release these spaces in the southeast and London.” Government sources insist that the targets are not binding and they believe that London will under-deliver homes and the north will over-deliver.

“The number spat out by formula is not a target but a starting point,” one source said. “Green belts are protected and will remain protected. It is for councils to decide. It is between them and their voters if they choose to take out a greenfield.”

The revised planning formula requires that more homes are built in areas where house prices are higher, because property costs are seen as a proxy for where people want to live.

A stark illustration of the effect of the new plans can be seen by comparing the demands put on Boris Johnson’s London constituency and Rishi Sunak’s North Yorkshire seat. The analysis suggests that the prime minister’s seat of Uxbridge & South Ruislip would need to accommodate 1,220 homes a year, ten times as many as the chancellor’s constituency of Richmond.

In seats won in 2019 by the Tories across the north and the Midlands, 260 homes will be built per 100,000 people compared with 550 per 100,000 across the rest of the country.

Paul Miner, the head of land use and planning at the CPRE, said: “If you have a pattern of significantly higher levels of housing development in the south than the north, you will see significantly more government investment in infrastructure in these areas to make that happen, such as building new railway lines. A big question is how this will impact the levelling-up agenda if this approach is allowed to continue.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “To compare housing delivery in different parts of the country based on Local Housing Need formula is to misunderstand the nature and purpose of these numbers. That’s not how they work and this analysis is misleading.”