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15 September 2017

The Green Belt

Tag(s): Sustainability
It would seem by all accounts that there is a housing crisis in the UK and that this involves a shortage of housing. As a result the Green Belt in England is under severe threat from all sides. There are over 1.6 million hectares of Green Belt land in England covering 13% of the land area designed to prevent urban sprawl by keeping areas permanently open and free from ‘inappropriate’ development. 

The Old Testament outlines a proposal for a green belt around the Levite towns in the land of Israel. In the 7th century Mohammed established a green belt around Medina. He did this by prohibiting any further removal of trees in a 12-mile long strip around the city. In 1580 Queen Elizabeth I banned new building in a 3-mile wide belt around the City of London in an attempt to stop the spread of plague. 

In modern times, the term emerged from continental Europe where broad boulevards were increasingly used to separate new development from the centre of historic towns, most notably the Ringstrasse in Vienna. Green Belt policy was then pioneered in the UK. Various proposals were put forward from 1890 onwards but the first to gain widespread support was put forward by the London Society in its “Development Plan of Greater London” 1919. Alongside the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE)[i], they lobbied for a continuous belt (of up to two miles wide) to prevent urban sprawl, beyond which new development could occur. 

This began to be part of public policy when the Metropolitan Green Belt around London was proposed by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee in 1935. The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 then allowed local authorities to include green belt proposals in their development plans. In 1955, Minister of Housing Duncan Sandys encouraged local authorities around the country to consider protecting land around their towns and cities by the formal designation of clearly defined green belts. 

It is chilling to imagine what our countryside would look like without the check of urban sprawl that the Green Belt has provided for over 60 years. CPRE’s former President, Sir Andrew Motion, painted a vivid picture when he noted: “Since 1940, the population of Los Angeles has grown at about the same rate as the population of London. Los Angeles is now so enormous, if you plonked it down on England, it would stretch from Brighton to Cambridge.” 

Thanks to the Green Belt, much of the nation’s countryside has escaped the kind of urban sprawl experienced in other countries around the world where no such protection exists.  But if proposals to build on England’s Green Belt continue to rise at the present rate, ‘London-on-Sea’ could one day become a reality, as the Green Belt is dismantled, hectare by hectare. It would also be a similar story of gradual unchecked sprawl for Newcastle, Manchester, Oxford and many other towns and cities across England, which rely on Green Belt to safeguard the countryside surrounding their urban areas. 

Unchecked urban sprawl is one of the reasons for the increase in flooding catastrophes.  The recent disaster in Houston is partly due to the development of huge areas of low-lying prairie and wetland that once acted as natural sponges. This has had the effect both of increasing floods and putting more homes in their path. To make matters worse, Washington still insists on offering housebuilders heavily subsidised flood insurance, a wasteful giveaway that encourages people to rebuild in flood-prone areas. The National Wildlife Federation condemned this crazy system in a report 20 years ago. It cited the egregious example of a home in Houston that had flooded 16 times in 18 years, netting its owners more than $800,000 even though it was valued at less than $115,000. [ii] 

The CPRE has recently released an alarming new report revealing that the number of houses being proposed for Green Belt land has shot up in the past five years. In 2012, 81,000 houses were planned for construction in the Green Belt. This year that figure has soared to 425,000, a shocking increase of over 400%.  

It is generally agreed that there is a shortage of housing, particularly so-called ‘affordable homes’ but this proposed loss of Green Belt land is quite unnecessary. There is enough brownfield land available in England to build up to 1.4 million new homes.
The Green Belt land is being allocated for development at the fastest rate in two decades. This directly contradicts many Government promises made in recent times. David Cameron claimed, “I would no more put [Green Belt} at risk than I would risk my own family”.[iii] And Theresa May insists, “The Government is very clear that the Green Belt must be protected”. 

Despite the rhetoric and reassurances, and unwittingly or not, the Government is undermining the protection of the Green Belt. An example of this is the New Homes Bonus, a Government scheme that financially incentivises councils for building houses – even when these houses are built on protected land like the Green Belts or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The CPRE estimates that the Government will reward councils £2.4 billion to build the 425,000 houses currently planned for the Green Belt – overriding their own policy. Once the concrete and tarmac is laid the grass and the trees and the wild life are lost for ever. 

But the real tragedy is that the completely unnecessary loss of countryside will not even solve the affordable housing crisis. Instead of building the types of homes communities desperately need, developers are exploiting the system to build high-end, low-density, executive houses that are financially out of reach for most people. Just 16% of houses built on the Green Belt in the last eight years can be classed as affordable, and looking ahead, the CPRE estimates that at most 28% of the houses being planned would be classed as affordable. 

The Green Belt is not some romantic notion. In a densely populated island it enhances our lives in many ways. It is the countryside next door for 30 million people. It is a precious opportunity to get away from it all, to reconnect with nature and spend time with friends, family and pets outdoors. It adds enormously to our health and well-being. And by containing urban sprawl, it also drives the regeneration of our towns and cities, making them better places to live. England’s Green Belt contains 34% of our Local Nature Reserves and 19% of our irreplaceable ancient woodland. 

There are economists who argue a different story. Some say that a green belt is created by residents to preserve the bourgeois status quo of those already living in the area, and especially the landlords who profit from the scarcity of housing. They say that the benefits accrue only to a few who actually step foot on the protected land. They say it prevents housing demand to be met with supply, thus exacerbating high housing prices and stifling competitive forces in general. 

I have already demonstrated that this last point is not true. One suspects that such economists might well be in the pocket of the housebuilders much as some scientists were in the pocket of the oil companies over climate change and the tobacco companies over the dangers of smoking.[iv] 

We once had a proud tradition of housebuilding in this country but many of our housebuilders went to the wall after the last financial crisis leaving a few to play the field. Last year 50% of houses were put up by just eight companies. 98% of new-home buyers reported defects or snags in the year to March. The state heavily subsidises housebuilders via its ludicrous help to buy (H2B) scheme. According to the Financial Times the builders charge up to 5% more for an H2B house than a privately financed house, just because they can. 

Most of the larger builders are publicly quoted and so their efforts are distorted by the “incentive-driven short termism that plagues the UK’s corporate world.”[v] The Chairman of Berkeley Group, Tony Pidgley has 'earned' £74m in the past three years. His chief executive has ‘received’ £61m. Berkeley sells about 2,000 houses a year, at the higher end of the market. So these two men alone have earned around £20,000 per house. Last week the pair dumped shares for a combined £45m. Steve Morgan, founder of Redrow, has just sold £76m of shares in the FTSE 250 firm while his charity sold a similar amount. 

These firms sit on large land banks and only build a limited number of houses to keep demand and prices high. Their lawyers run rings around the planning officers of the District Councils. All planning is now subject to a local plan. If the plan has not been signed off it is easy to challenge planning decisions. My own local authority, having spent £1m on its plan, had it challenged in the Courts and lost. It has to start again. 

The government’s manifesto commitment was to build a million new homes in the life of this parliament, i.e. 200,000 per year. Last year 140,000 houses were built, so the increase would have to be enormous.  The brownfield sites are there but the building capacity is not. There are not the skills or resources required but most crucially the way the market works is against this. What is needed is to restore the building of council properties. Margaret Thatcher may have been right to give council tenants the chance to buy their own home but she was wrong to deter councils from replenishing the stock. That should change as a matter of urgency, but not on the Green Belt.

[i] Now the Campaign to Protect Rural England of which my wife and I are members.   
[ii] The frightening lessons of Hurricane Harvey The Week 9 September, 2017
[iii] But in June 2012 David Cameron and his wife left their eight year old daughter alone in a pub.
[iv] Merchants of Doubt Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway Bloomsbury Press 2010
[v] Merryn Somerset Webb,  MoneyWeek 8 September, 2017

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