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Debate: Are there alternatives to building on the Green Belt?

We asked a panel of experts if building on the Green Belt is the only way to solve the housing crisis

50 Shades of Green Belt report by Broadway Malyan

“Green Belt reappraisal can help to relieve the problem of affordability. There is a clear link between our least affordable towns and cities and areas with a Green Belt policy.”

Paul Swinney

Head of policy and research at Centre for Cities

“London’s population has surpassed its pre-War level, yet its Green Belt remains unchanged. Developing brownfield land and building at greater densities should be done where possible, but this won’t be enough on its own.

“Centre for Cities data shows that 3.4 million homes could be built on just 12.5% of Green Belt in the 10 least affordable cities. By freeing up this much-needed land, more people will be able to access the jobs and opportunities cities like Cambridge, Bristol and Oxford have to offer.

“Maintaining a tightly wound Green Belt can cause its own environmental damage, by encouraging development in areas outside the Green Belt and further away from cities – boosting car use and lengthening commutes. Small Green Belt releases would support densification, and more sustainable land-use.”

Rick Behan

Partner at Blick Rothenberg

“UK residential property is viewed as a sound investment. The result has been a supply squeeze and an unprecedented inflation of prices.

“The government’s initiatives on SDLT, mortgage interest relief, ATED and international treaty alterations from the 2016 Finance Bill, together with the uncertainty around Brexit, have only made a difference at the very top of the London residential market. This should, in time, feed down the chain and alleviate some of the pressures. Only time will tell if this alone is enough.”

Paul Miner

 Head of strategic plans and devolution at the Campaign to Protect Rural England

“There is a housing crisis that must be addressed. But it cannot be solved by releasing more Green Belt land for development. The crisis is one of affordability, not simply supply; 2017 saw 425,000 houses planned for Green Belt land, of which more than 70% were unaffordable. We are increasingly allowing developers to cherry pick to maximise their profits.

“The Green Belts are one of our nation’s greatest achievements, and they are as relevant today as they have ever been. But to retain their benefits there needs to be a much more stringent requirement to prioritise suitable brownfield sites. There is enough brownfield land for at least one million new homes. In rural areas (including those covered by Green Belts), there should be more focus and support for community-led schemes of genuinely affordable housing. We should also invest in growth across England, and not just in areas attractive to the market.”

Tom Papworth

Author of Yes in My Back Yard by the Adam Smith Institute

“Green Belt policy pushes up the cost of living, reduces quality of life and harms the environment. Yet it is staunchly defended by citizens who live near the Green Belt. We have to choose whether to protect inner-city green space or sacrifice parks for the sake of low-grade farmland, golf courses and already-developed sites that happen to have once been classified as Green Belt.”

Jan Crosby

UK head of housing at KPMG

“The biggest hurdle to building more affordable homes is the mechanics of the land market. The winning bidder of land will have priced it based on the maximum prices for the houses they will sell, which means that they will use supply to maintain price. This market absorption pricing is vital, given land value can rise one hundred fold once it receives planning permission.

“Policymakers will be working hard on solutions to capture some of the value from this uplift and use it to increase build out rates. As such, the focus on build rate, as well as more joined-up place making and infrastructure provision, will be much more transformational than purely focusing on the Green Belt.”

Siobhain McDonagh MP

Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden

“22% of land within London’s boundary is Green Belt. Much of this is around train stations and little is luscious and green. There are 19,334 hectares of unbuilt Green Belt land within a 10-minute walk of London’s train stations. This is not traditional Green Belt land. At no environmental cost, this is enough space for almost one million new homes in London.”

Kristian Niemietz

Head of welfare at the Institute of Economic Affairs

“Two years ago, a paper in the Economic Journal estimated, conservatively, that about 35% of the average house price in England is directly attributable to land use planning constraints.

“The paper is not specifically about the Green Belt. But the Green Belt remains the single most severe land use planning restriction. It takes 13% of all the land of England – almost all in prime locations, and easily developable – off the market. It is not a coincidence that the cities where the housing crisis is worst (London, Oxford, Cambridge etc) are all surrounded by Green Belt land.

“Green Belt is an arbitrary designation. It is also a complete misnomer, since a lot of Green Belt land is not remotely green.

“We could fit a million homes on less than 4% of London’s Green Belt. This could all be scenically unspectacular land around already existing commuter stations. Densification and urban redevelopment also have their role to play, but they are typically too costly and time-consuming to solve the problem on their own.”

Ben Goldsmith

Green industries investor

“Britain concretes over an area the size of London each decade, principally to absorb an unsustainable level of immigration. At this rate we won’t be leaving behind much green space (a finite resource) for future generations.”

Tom Copley

City Hall Labour housing spokesperson, replying to Ben Goldsmith

“Only 6% of land in the UK is built on and only 1% is housing. More land in Britain is covered by golf courses than housing. Stop dressing up your xenophobia as concern about the housing crisis.”

Simon Happily

Comedian and pub quiz host, replying to Tom Copley

“I do think it is time to consider building on some golf courses (rather than the Green Belt) to tackle our housing crisis. But building isn’t enough as London’s empty luxury towers show – we need to build far more genuinely affordable housing including social homes.”

Originally published in Economia on 5 June 2018.