The United Kingdom is faced with an acute housing crisis. Across the country, home ownership has plummeted and private renting has risen. The causes of this critical situation - Right to Buy, planning permission delays, land banking etc. - are legion and much debated. But there is one thing everyone agrees on: a home of one’s own is a rare and valuable commodity these days.
One option frequently mooted to tackle the lack of housing is to build on Green Belt land. Advocates of this position point out preventing huge areas from being developed when there is a housing shortage makes no sense. The idea of the Belt, they argue, is outdated and needs to be revisited, urgently.
This position is, however, not uncontroversial. Defenders of the Green Belt - including the Government - say it still has a role in modern Britain. They argue it restrains urban sprawl and provides much needed green space in an increasingly urbanised world.
This debate has been revived with a new report published by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). A 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt (henceforth Metropolitan) argues new housing should be strategically built on London’s Green Belt in order to alleviate development pressure in the South East.
‘We have reached a point’, says Dr Alan Mace, assistant professor of urban planning studies and one of the authors of the report, ‘where we cannot keep on disregarding the Green Belt as an option for well thought out development.’
The Green Belt has been an integral part of the British landscape since the early twentieth century. While the idea was first introduced to these shores in 1889 by Lord Meath of the London County Council - who called for the creation of a ‘green girdle’ around the city - it only gained political traction between the wars.
The preparatory groundwork was done by the London Society. Founded in 1912, this group of prominent Londoners was concerned about the lack of planning that went into the ever-expanding metropolis. After WWI they published one of the first development plans for the capital - Development Plan of Greater London (1919) - which contained a call for green spaces in the outer suburbs.
The advocacy of the society began to bear legislative fruit in the 1930s with the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act (1938). Local authorities around London began purchasing land for protection as open spaces in what Jonathan Manns, the associate director of planning at Colliers International, describes as ‘a wave of large-scale acquisitions’. It was here the Metropolitan Green Belt (MGB) was born, although it was later expanded under Patrick Abercrombie’s 1944 Greater London Plan.
Frequently referred to in the singular, the Green Belt consists of multiple ‘belts’ of territory around select urban developments, with the MGB only surrounding London. In total, Green Belt land consists of around 13% of England - 2% more than the country’s urbanised space - and it is off limits to developers except for in ‘very special circumstances.’
It is designed to serve a number of functions. It restricts urban sprawl - a purpose captured by Lord Meath’s term ‘green girdle’ - preventing towns from merging and allowing historic settlements to maintain their special character. It also provides access to the countryside and safeguards it from encroachment. Furthermore, it is supposed to encourage urban redevelopment and the recycling of disused sites.
Critics argue, however, that the green belt is now outdated and a contributing factor to the present housing crisis. The authors of the LSE’s Metropolitan, for example, claim the MGB contributes to the South East’s dire housing difficulties by ‘locking up’ potentially developable land. This results, they say, in housing shortages, higher rents, and longer commutes for those working in London but living outside.
Rico Wojtulewicz of the National Federation of Builders (NFB) agrees. ‘House prices in London are excessive for renters and buyers alike. Building on the Green Belt would increase supply, slow down house price inflation, and encourage investment in the capital and beyond.’
The standard response to this is to point to the many underdeveloped brownfield sites ripe for reuse. Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) - a group founded by Patrick Abercrombie - raises this issue. 'If we are to build the homes we need,’ he says, ‘we have to reinforce current protections and put brownfield first, not weaken Green Belt policy on an agenda of economic growth in the South East.’
The ‘brownfield first’ argument is strong. It is also Government policy. This has, however, been factored into the argument in Metropolitan. ‘In practice brownfield cannot supply enough land to meet projected housing needs,’ it says. ‘In London almost all of it already has existing uses; much is contaminated and/or has access problems; and often brownfield sites are too small to interest volume housebuilders but too complicated for small firms to take on.’
The CPRE rejects the argument that the Green Belt is significant in the debate over housing shortages. On their website they set out what they see as the key factors in high house prices - the first of which is ‘landbanking’. They write: ‘the significant factors that stimulate housing demand well beyond the capacity of the market to supply it, and so drive up prices, actually include: the ability of the major housebuilding companies to control the supply of land for housebuilding and trickle out new houses in order to maximise sales returns.’
In other words, the housing crisis is not a question of space, rather it is a question of who controls space. ‘If we loosened Green Belt controls or de-designated large areas of it,’ the CPRE’s website explains, ‘we would simply allow more land to be built on, where developers can make maximum profit.’ Or to put it another way: we would be right back to square one, but with less green space.
The CPRE’s suggestion that sectional interests rather than a shortage of land are behind the housing crisis is mirrored by critics of the Green Belt. Paul Cheshire, professor of economic geography at the LSE, argues the only people who benefit from the green belt are those who own houses within it. ‘Owners of such houses are heavily biased to the rich and influential who lobby hard – the very purpose of the CPRE – to maintain the Green Belt,’ he explained in an email.
Furthermore, Professor Cheshire sees the green belt as ‘a form of discriminatory zoning to keep the poor out.’ ‘The lack of land for housing is a major reason it has become progressively less and less affordable,’ he explains, ‘and this results in a transfer of real assets to house owners and the old; and particularly to house owners who own pre-existing houses within the green zone.’
Another point of contention is the exact environmental and wider societal benefits conferred by the Green Belt. The CPRE defends it by arguing it opens the countryside up to 30 million people - to build on it would be to rob the populace of huge swathes of Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’. It also has considerable environmental value, they argue, because it stores carbon and prevents flooding. Moreover, the pressure group says, the Green Belt is a vital economic resource for food security and soil protection.
Professor Cheshire, however, is adamant there are no real environmental and social benefits. He explains huge sections of the Green Belt are used for environmentally damaging intensive agriculture and golf courses. ‘There is lots of land within the green belt on which we should not build,’ he says, ‘but most is protected by other meaningful designations such as AONB [Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty] or SSSI [Sites of Special Scientific Interest] or National Trust or National Park etc.’ None of these areas would be built on even if green belt regulation was liberalised. Blake’s Jerusalem would be safe from the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of development.
It comes down to what we understand by ‘development’. Currently, local authorities are building on the Green Belt in a piecemeal fashion. A CPRE report published last April showed an increased tendency by councils to claim ‘special circumstances’ for developing the belt. The study warned 275,000 houses were planned for Green Belt designated areas - an increase of 50,000 on last year and almost 200,000 more than in 2012.
The authors of Metropolitan are calling for an end to such piecemeal development and, instead, urge planners to adopt a ’strategic approach’ to building on Green Belt land. Mr Wojtulewicz of the NFB seconds this: ‘The current system of not using the Green Belt strategically is inefficient.’ This approach would not involve the wholesale abolition of the Belt but would mean the creation of a consistent and more organised approach to its development. This, in turn, might allow for the construction of more houses on land that is otherwise not in use. The CPRE views this as the thin-end-of-the-wedge. Maybe - but it’s a good idea to be wary of such arguments. The ‘If…then…’ form of debate can be used to justify most things.
In one of the first pamphlets ever issued by the London Society, the group defined its role in the following terms: ‘to think about the future of London and it’s improvement’ as well as ‘the jealous preservation of all that is old and beautiful in London as far as is possible.’ Replace London for England and here you have the debate over the future of the Green Belt. It is important to preserve all that is ‘old and beautiful’ about England, but this does not mean neglecting its future - and more housing is what future generations need.