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Ministers will next month publicly back building thousands of houses on green belt land despite a growing Tory rebellion and concerns from environmental campaigners.
The Sunday Telegraph understands the Government will encourage the use of “green belt swaps” in a white paper to help solve the housing crisis.
The scheme allows councils to remove protections on one part of green belt in return for creating a new area of protected land elsewhere.Critics says the change could transform Britain’s countryside by allowing thousands of homes to be built on protected land and watering down the original definition of green belt.
However ministers believe the swaps are a sensitive way of protecting rural land while giving councils the powers to hit ambitious housing targets.
Sajid Javid, the Local Government Secretary, indicated his support in a speech this week as he called on MPs not to oppose building on green belt outright.
He said the Westminster politicians “should not stand in the way” of councils who propose green belt development, providing “all the options” have been considered.
Green belt swaps allow a council to suggest some protected land is freed up for development, often to help meet demand in the housing market.
In return, a separate area of land is proposed for new protections, meaning the total amount of green belt land does not fall.
The rules already exist but often fail to work in practice, with planning bodies rejecting proposals because the new land fails to meet the definition of green belt.
Industry sources have said that a white paper on housing to be published next month will include measures to encourage the use of such swaps.
Tories hope it will help hit their ambitious housing target – building a million homes by 2020 – while living up to a pledge to protect the green belt.
Experts say one option would be encouraging the Planning Inspectorate to approve more swaps. The body often rejects proposals because the new area of land fails to hit the “five purposes” of green belt, including stopping urban sprawl.
George Osborne, the former Chancellor, repeatedly tried to encourage councils to swap new areas of Green Belt for land taken out for development, but had little success.
Mr Javid, the cabinet minister in charge of housing policy, indicated his support for the move at a speech on Thursday.
“Where local councils come forward with sensible, robust local plans – and are willing to take the tough decisions – I will back them all the way,” he said.
“For example, Birmingham City Council has put forward a plan to meet some of its local housing need by removing green belt designation from a small area of land.
“They’ve looked at all the options. They’ve considered all the implications. They want to build homes for their children and grandchildren. And Westminster politicians should not stand in the way of that.”
Yet the plans are already being met with significant opposition from Conservative MPs, who are privately warning that they are prepared to vote against the Government in Parliament if the plans are too aggressive.
Andrew Mitchell, the Tory MP for Sutton Coldfield where the green belt homes near Birmingham will be built, said: “We face horrific proposals from the Labour council and are frankly astonished that Sajid Javid has not stood by the Conservative’s manifesto commitment to defend the green belt.“He himself said the green belt is absolutely sacrosanct. We are therefore at a loss to know why the Government is unable to protect us from these iniquitous proposals. There is nothing that causes more anger among the electorate than being let down in this way.”
Nigel Mills, the Conservative MP for Amber Valley, said: “We have always said that green belt land is untouchable except in exceptional circumstances, that’s what we should stick to.
“Our promise in the manifesto was clear. There may be parts of the country where there is no alternative. They should be few and far between.”
Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said that once green belt land is lost it is very difficult to replace.
He said that while it is relatively easy to give permission for green belt land to be built on, it is far less easy to get permission for new areas to be classed as green belt.
He said: “We are concerned that his could be charter for developers and encourage local authorities to release large swathes of green belt with little justification.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. It’s generally found that the green belt is performing an important function in stopping urban sprawl.”
Earlier this year an analysis by the CPRE found that 5,000 houses a month are being planned for the green belt as councils struggle to find land to meet the government’s target of a million new homes by 2020.
It found that councils are proposing almost 300,000 homes on the 14 rings of land around English cities where development is meant to be strictly limited.
Since June, councils have proposed an additional 22,000 homes for the green belt in their draft local plans. The borough of Poole in Dorset has proposed 5,300; New Forest district council in Hampshire 4,000; Waverley borough council in Surrey 2,400; and Aylesbury Vale district council in Buckinghamshire 800.