The guidance, issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), says town halls should take account of green belt constraints when determining how many homes their local plans will include.
It says that in preparing strategic housing land availability assessments, local authorities should "take account of any constraints such as the green belt, which indicate that development should be restricted and which may restrain the ability of an authority to meet its need".
Ian Tant, senior partner at consultancy Barton Willmore, said the wording is "worrying" and "can only serve to take the emphasis away from housing need". He added: "Taken literally, this guidance is a licence for districts across the country to fail to meet need and not feel concerned about doing so."
Tant said the guidance omitted a "vital component" in that districts which find housing need outweighed by policy considerations should work with neighbouring authorities to decide how to make up the shortfall.
The guidance has been issued at a time when the government is trying to balance housing need with green belt protections in the run-up to the 2015 election, timing that Sam Metson, senior planning associate at consultancy Bidwells, suggested is "quite obvious".
By giving local authorities "something to refer to", it would seem to make it easier for them to avoid having to meet objectively assessed need, he concluded.
In a new section on when housing and economic needs might "override constraints on the use of land, such as green belt", the guidance says the National Planning Policy Framework "makes clear that, once established, green belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances, through the preparation or review of the local plan".
Around half of local planning authorities with green belt land have already committed to reviewing it as part of their emerging local plans, according to Matthew Spry, head of economics at consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners. Spry said this raised the possibility that the guidance could lead to a backtrack.