The green belt around the country’s towns and cities is safe “for now”, new planning minister Nick Boles has told MPs.
The words will be seen by campaigners as a clear hint that the Government is looking at relaxing the rules on building on the green belt.
England’s green belt covers over 6,000 square miles of countryside around towns and cities to prevent urban sprawl.
There have been persistent reports that ministers are looking at loosening rules on building on the green belt in an economic development bill next month.
Mr Boles, in his first appearance at the Commons’ dispatch box since he was appointed planning minister in the reshuffle, was told by Stewart Andrew MP, a former councillor, about threats to green belt land around Leeds.
He replied: “I can reassure him for now that there is nothing to stop Leeds city council from maintaining the protection of green belt land in their local plan.”
Mr Boles said he would “duck” that question, but he added: “There are certain sites within the green belt which are brownfield and it is important and right for local authorities to bring them forward for development.
“Not all of the green belt is beautiful greenfields, some of it is a quarry or has some other brownfield use.
“It is important to focus on bringing forward those sites first before thinking of anything further.”
Mr Boles’s comments are likely to fuel rumours that ministers want to make it easier for developers to build on green belt land around towns and cities.
Asked about Mr Boles’ comments, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman denied there were plans to make it easier to build on the green belt.
He said: “There are flexibilities within the current planning regime – in some parts of the country they are quite good at using those flexibilities.
“We have a national planning framework which was finalised quite recently and there isn’t any plan to change that.”
It is feared Mr Boles, who in January described countryside campaigners as “hysterical, scare-mongering latter day Luddites”, wants to rip up the delicate consenus around planning after national policy was set in April this year.
The Daily Telegraph led a eight month campaign called the Hands Off Our Land campaign before the policy was set urging the Government not to weaken protections for green field and green belt land.
Earlier this month analysis by the Local Government Association showed there are 400,000 plots across England and Wales with planning permission for work to start.
The figure is around 25 per cent higher than previously thought. Of the plots, actual building work had only started at half of the plots. Courtesy Christopher Hope, Telegraph Senior Political Correspondent