Should we build on the 'grey belt'? We ask the experts their thoughts on Starmer's plan

Keir Starmer clapping at the Labour party conference 2023
Industry leaders have welcomed Keir Starmer's plans to build on 'Grey Belt' land as well as his other commitments to reform the planning application process in order to deliver 1.5 million homes (Image credit: Getty Images)

Keir Starmer has unveiled Labour's homebuilding plans during a speech at Labour's Liverpool party conference. 

The construction industry has so far been supportive of his proposals to build on what the Labour Party leader termed the 'grey belt' and his plans to force through planning applications and increase the number of planning permissions granted to homebuilders.

We asked a number of industry experts about Starmer's plans for building on the grey belt, what this means, and industry leaders opinions on whether it's a good idea.

What is the 'grey belt'?

The 'grey belt' is a term coined by Keir Starmer's Labour Party to describe areas of green belt land that have been neglected or fallen into ruin, which would usually be classified as brownbelt land, but instead fall into greenbelt land allocation due to its location within a broad greenbelt area, often put in place to stop cities sprawling out too much into the countryside.

Examples include disused carparks, derelict buildings and concrete wasteland on the outskirts of city areas that falls outside the brownbelt allocation.

What are Starmer's plans for the 'grey belt'?

Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer put forward proposals for the creation of a fresh wave of 'Labour New Towns,' a concept centred around developing, what Starmer termed the "grey belt".

Starmer plans to make this possible by extending and further using Compulsory Purchasing Order (CPO) powers. This is where local and national governments can acquire land without the consent of the owner.

He added: "We are going to have to do things that previous governments haven't done. Otherwise, we'll end up where we are now, which is talking about housing - this is the story of the last 13 years - but not actually getting very much done."

Keir Starmer on a housing development site inside a house's living room wearing a high-vis jacket and orange gloves and a hard hat

Keir Starmer has labelled himself a 'YIMBY' claiming he will grant developers and authorities greater powers to force through planning applications despite local objections (Image credit: Getty Images)

What industry experts think of the plans

The National Housing Federation

The construction industry has widely welcomed Starmer's homebuilding pledges, particularly his plans for grey belt land.

Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation (NHF), stated: “It is positive to see a pragmatic approach to reviewing the greenbelt, which needs to be done strategically rather than the current piecemeal approach. We know that some greenbelt land can be of low quality, and limited value and may include things like former car parks or petrol stations.

“Given the chronic shortage of homes we have in England, it makes sense to use some of this land to deliver the homes we sorely need, while protecting the parts of the green belt that are more valuable to our environment.”

Kate Henderson headshot
Kate Henderson

Kate assumed the role of chief executive at the NHF in October 2018, having previously served as chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association. Kate is also a member of several government panels such as the Net Zero Buildings Council, the Rough Sleeping Advisory Panel, and the Social Housing Quality Expert Challenge Panel.

The House Builders Association

Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy at the House Builders Association (HBA), the housing arm of the National Federation of Builders (NFB) said: "He [Starmer] is correct to ignore NIMBY protests because, by definition, NIMBY’s are out and out anti-development. Most people just want the correct infrastructure alongside development so they can go from unsure to YIMBY.

"Councils already underuse CPO powers and the reason is the politics of land use, though we recognise reforms may help reduce their legal costs and barriers. We, therefore, welcome central government getting more involved in using CPO to deliver new places and hope it can inspire local authorities to also get involved, particularly if it helps deliver supply diversity and enables SME (small and medium-sized) builders."

Rico Wojtulewicz headshot
Rico Wojtulewicz

Rico Wojtulewicz is the head of housing for the National Federation of Builders and House Builders Association, which he joined in 2015. He has also previously worked in politics, residential service delivery, employment, education, policy and as a development consultant, working with local councils for project development strategies.

The Home Builders Federation 

The Home Builders Federation (HBF) told Homebuilding & Renovating said Labour's plans "largely take us back to where this government were five years ago!", but they also said they "welcome policies that would make planning more effective" such as those proposed in the grey belt proposals.

They claim that providing more land and powers to local councils will speed up homebuilding as they stated the "planning system is currently one of the biggest barriers to delivery".

They added: "Streamlining the process and ensuring there is capacity in planning departments, such that it doesn’t take years to get to the point where an approved application can start to be built, is also essential for the effective delivery of new homes."

The Home Builders Federation (HBF) also said: "It is imperative that government launches the consultation on the Future Homes Standard and provides the certainty and clarity industry needs if we are to deliver on the very challenging requirements being set."

According to a spokesperson from the Labour Party, the new houses will adhere to the prospective future homes standard currently under consideration by the government. However, the specific details of this standard remain unclear.

The Chartered Institute of Building

Eddie Tuttle, director of policy, external affairs and research at Chartered Institute of Building, said: “Clearly there is a need for more homes to be built and it’s a fact that the construction sector functions best when there are long-term plans. We look forward to hearing more about the Labour Party’s proposals when it releases its election manifesto.”

Eddie Tuttle headshot
Eddie Tuttle

Eddie, in his role as director of policy, research, and public affairs, holds the responsibility of offering strategic counsel to the senior management team of the CIOB regarding matters related to policy and public affairs within the field of the built environment, both on a national and international scale.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England

There have been some concerns raised around building on Grey Belt land, as well as the quality of the homes that will be built there.

Roger Mortlock, the Chief Executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CRPE), criticised the proposals to build on grey belt land, stating: "Brownfield land can provide room for 1.2 million new homes and before we start thinking about a new generation of New Towns, we need to make sure we’ve exhausted the untapped potential of brownfield land.

"While sustainable development on brownfield land in the Green Belt can be part of the solution, we challenge the idea that ‘grey’ belt land should include areas of scrubland that should be restored to enhance nature and support natural solutions to the climate crisis."

Roger Mortlock headshot
Roger Mortlock

Roger previously served as CEO at Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust for nine years before joining the CRPE. He's an experienced national campaigner, leading initiatives like the UK's first green infrastructure benchmark and national agricultural policy projects for the Wildlife Trusts.

What are Starmer's other homebuilding plans?

Keir Starmer has committed to building 1.5 million homes if Labour were to win the next general election, and bring back mandatory housing targets. 

He labelled himself a 'YIMBY' and announced he would grant developers greater powers in forcing through planning approvals by "bulldozing away" local planning objections with new planning reforms.

He also said in his interview with the BBC: "One of the problems we have is that planning at the moment is very, very localised. There isn’t the ability to look across a wider area and say where would the best place be for this development, where could we have a new town?”

Joseph Mullane
News Editor

News Editor Joseph has previously written for Today’s Media and Chambers & Partners, focusing on news for conveyancers and industry professionals.  Joseph has just started his own self build project, building his own home on his family’s farm with planning permission for a timber frame, three-bedroom house in a one-acre field. The foundation work has already begun and he hopes to have the home built in the next year. Prior to this he renovated his family's home as well as doing several DIY projects, including installing a shower, building sheds, and livestock fences and shelters for the farm’s animals. Outside of homebuilding, Joseph loves rugby and has written for Rugby World, the world’s largest rugby magazine.