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No need to use green belt land to solve housing shortage, says minister

The housing shortage in England can be resolved without building on "large tracts" of green belt land, a minister has said as the Government prepared to set out its plans for a million new homes by 2020.

The long-awaited housing white paper, to be published on Tuesday, will signal a shift of direction by Prime Minister Theresa May towards affordable homes to rent, after decades of Conservative focus on creating a "home-owning democracy".

The policy document will include measures to encourage "build to rent" developers, and to ensure more secure longer-term tenancies are more widely available in the private sector.

Speaking ahead of the launch, Housing Minister Gavin Barwell acknowledged ultimately the housing shortage could only be resolved by building more homes, but he strongly denied the Government was planning to relax controls on green belt land to do so.

"We are not going to weaken the protections. We have a clear manifesto commitment. There is no need to take huge tracts of land out of the green belt to solve the housing crisis," he told ITV's Peston on Sunday.

However his comments failed to reassure Conservative critics who warned that local authorities were already encroaching on green belt land with the consent of ministers.

Former minister Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield, said large numbers of homes had been approved for green belt land in the West Midlands without any objection from Government.

"We have seen in Birmingham a monstrous plan put forward by the Labour council to build 6,000 on our treasured green belt and it has been waved through by ministers," he told Peston on Sunday.

Mr Barwell acknowledged the white paper would represent a "change of tone" from past Conservative housing policy, reflecting the fact that rising costs meant many people could no longer afford to buy.

"Housing has become more and more unaffordable for people who are trying to buy or trying to rent because governments for 30 or 40 years have not built enough homes," he said.

"Absolutely we want to be a Government that helps people that are working hard to get on to the housing ladder, but if you are going to have a country that works for everyone you have to have something to say to people that want to rent a home as well."

Proposals in the white paper will encourage local authorities to plan "proactively" for more build-to-rent developments, while making it easier for developers to offer affordable private rentals instead of other forms of affordable housing.

It will say such schemes should offer "family friendly" tenancies of three years or longer, providing greater security for families with children while confirming the previously announced ban on letting agent fees for new tenants.

In order to speed up the pace of building, developers will be warned that they risk being stripped of their planning permission for a site if they do not get on and use it.

For Labour, shadow housing secretary John Healey said the white paper plans were "disappointing" at a time when affordable housebuilding had fallen to its lowest level in 24 years.

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