What is the ‘grey belt’ that Labour wants to build new houses on?

Chancellor Rachel Reeves wants 1.5 million houses to be built by 2029. Central to that will be 'green', 'grey' and 'brown' land.

Watch: We will get Britain building again - chancellor

After her first speech as chancellor, Rachel Reeves was asked if she was declaring war on so-called 'nimbys' (meaning “not in my back yard”, a term for people who oppose new developments).

She didn't deny it, and warned: “It will be up to local communities to decide where the housing is built, but it has to be built. If the answer is always no, we will continue as we are… we’ve got to get Britain building.”

Reeves had just set out her plans for house building, saying she will reinstate compulsory targets for local councils as part of Labour’s promise to build 1.5 million new homes in the next five years.

As part of this, Reeves opened up the possibility of building on the green belt with confirmation the government will review green belt boundaries - though she said brownfield and so-called “grey belt” land will be prioritised in order to meet housing targets.

But what is the difference between green, grey and brown land?

England's green belts, many of which surround major cities. (CPRE)
England's green belts, many of which surround major cities. (CPRE)

Green belts, as defined by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), are "14 areas of land [in England] that are protected from most forms of development.

"Local planning authorities are responsible for designating land as ‘green belt’ through powers established in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947."

The CPRE adds that the primary function of the green belt is to "prevent urban sprawl, a phenomenon whereby cities expand outwards into neighbouring countryside, which eventually results in towns and cities merging and the valuable green space between them being damaged or lost altogether".

According to the House of Commons Library, England has 6,326 square miles of green belt land, covering 12.6% of the country’s land area.

Residential buildings currently account for just 0.3% of green belt land.

Grey belt isn’t actually an official term. It was coined by Labour in April as part of a housing policy announcement.

But now the party is in power, grey belt will essentially mean areas of unattractive or poor-quality green belt land which it will target for house building.

“We’ll prioritise ugly, disused ‘grey belt’ land,” Sir Keir Starmer said at the time, “and set tough new conditions for releasing that land. Our golden rules will also ensure any grey belt development delivers affordable homes, new infrastructure and improved green spaces.”

No official data exist on the grey belt. But a previous analysis by estate agent Knight Frank suggested up to 200,000 homes could be built on these sites.

Brownfield land, as defined by the CPRE, is "previously developed land that’s no longer being used", such as a disused industrial estate or factory.

The CPRE, as a proponent of brownfield development, says it's the "building equivalent of recycling – it’s better to use land that’s lying idle than to unnecessarily concrete over pristine countryside".

Experts agree Britain is suffering from a chronic shortage of housing, with previous governments having struggled to hit ambitious targets to build more homes.

In the year to March, about 135,000 homes started being constructed, a drop of more than one-fifth on the year before.

Chancellor Rachel Reeves speaks to media on Tuesday having set out her plans for house building. (PA)
Chancellor Rachel Reeves speaks to media on Tuesday having set out her plans for house building. (PA)

Britain has not built 300,000 new homes a year – the amount that would be needed to hit the government's 1.5 million target – since the 1950s.

It's in this climate that even the chair of Natural England, which aims to protect and restore the natural environment, has advocated limited building on the green belt. Tony Juniper told The Guardian last year an “oppositional mindset” does not reflect reality.

Labour has vowed to reform the planning system, which it has blamed for the country's house building failures.

As well as the review of green belt boundaries, Reeves announced other measures to speed up house building such as setting up a team of experts to “accelerate stalled housing sites” and appointing 300 extra planning officers across the country.

But experts agree the 1.5 million target will be difficult to achieve. Aside from opposition from so-called nimbys, Paul Maile, a senior planning partner at law firm Eversheds Sutherland, said other obstacles include “supply chain constraints and a shortage of skilled workers like construction personnel”.

And James Dunne, head of operational real estate at asset manager Abrdn, warned the government will need to provide significant financial support to the private sector in order to deliver the homes.

Green campaigners are also concerned. Mike Childs, head of science, policy and research at Friends of the Earth, said: “In terms of the green belt, much of what borders many towns and cities isn’t exactly a haven for wildlife thanks to intensive farming – but it does serve a vital purpose of preventing urban sprawl. Building on it should be a last resort and any nature-depleted greenbelt land must be restored and made accessible to communities no matter its use.”

Others are more supportive of Labour's approach, however, with the National Federation of Builders hopeful that "the ambition of the ‘grey belt’" is about to be realised.