Minister's greenfield development comments do not indicate policy shift, government confirms

Comments made by the housing minister in a speech in which she said that greenfield land should only be developed in "the most exceptional circumstances" do not represent a shift in planning policy, the government has confirmed.

Housing and planning minister Esther McVey (pic: Getty Images)
Housing and planning minister Esther McVey (pic: Getty Images)

Speaking last week at a property conference in Wales, housing and planning minister Esther McVey said there is a "need to focus on brownfield sites".

"Because greenfield land, greenfield sites, should not be what we turn to, not what we look at first," the minister said.

"Every blade of grass must be looked at before it is changed – and it is only in the most exceptional circumstances we turn there."

The comments prompted concerns from some in the planning sector that they could prompt confusion around understanding of national policy on greenfield development and potentially embolden objectors to plans for housing in such locations.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that green belt boundaries can only be changed in "exceptional circumstances" while "inappropriate" development in the green belt is only permitted in "very special circumstances". However, there is no such test for development of greenfield land.

In response to a request from Planning to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for clarification on this issue, a government source said the minister's comments do "not indicate a shift in policy" and she was "underlining our commitment to protecting green spaces by building on brownfield sites first".

The source drew attention to chapter 11 of the NPPF on "making effective use of land", which they said "sets out the approach to ensuring land is used effectively to protect our green spaces". 

Paragraph 117 states that plan-makers' strategic policies "should set out a clear strategy for accommodating objectively assessed needs, in a way that makes as much use as possible of previously developed or ‘brownfield’ land".

Mark Batchelor, a director at consultancy Boyer, said the minister’s comments were "politically nothing new" in that she had stressed the use of brownfield land over greenfield to build new homes. 

However, he noted that the "rhetoric was much stronger" and it signalled that the government is to continue to focus on brownfield rather than greenfield sites.

Batchelor added that anti-housing campaigners would "no doubt" pick up on this and "take encouragement" from it.

He also highlighted that McVey had talked in speech about supporting "non-conventional" housing products such as co-living and he said this suggested "creative" thinking about solutions to the housing crisis on behalf of the minister.

Responding to McVey’s comments, a spokesman for the Home Builders Federation (HBF) said that "achieving the government’s ambition of 300,000 homes will require more sites to come forward and be built on".

He said: "We will need to see a mix of site types and sizes in places where people want to live. Whilst the majority of homes are already being built on brownfield sites, to achieve further increases in supply will still require some development on greenfield sites. Local authorities need to prioritise and allocate sites that will both deliver the numbers of homes they need in a way that meets their communities’ requirements."

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