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Neither ‘green’ nor ‘belts’: it is time to rid ourselves of a harmful anachronism

Source: Public Sector Executive Feb/Mar 2015

Tom Papworth, senior research fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, a think tank advocating market solution to policy problems, discusses how reforming the green belt could help tackle the country’s housing crisis.

Voltaire once quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, was not Roman and was not an empire. In light of the fact that they are neither particularly green, nor are they exactly belts, one might say something similar about England’s green belts.

Originally conceived to prevent urban sprawl, preserve a rural/urban distinction, stop the agglomeration of towns and encourage city-centre renewal, the green belt designation has come to encompass far more land than we have actually developed.

Green belts are twice as big as the cities they aim to contain and 50% bigger than the total amount of developed land in England.

Yet, as I discuss in ‘The Green Noose’, my recent report for the Adam Smith Institute, the fundamental premises of green belt policy are confused, ambiguous and flawed.

Take ‘urban sprawl’. This highly loaded term, deliberately constructed to associate the growth of our cities with an untidy mess, was originally conceived to describe exactly the kind of (leapfrog) development that green belts now encourage. Or consider the distinction between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, which is an arbitrary classification that ignores the fact that the rural is also been thoroughly bent to humanity’s will. At the time green belts were introduced, the concern to protect ‘rural’ land was motivated by a desire to ensure a degree of self-sufficiency in agriculture; with farming now producing just 0.7% of GVA and little threat of a U-boat blockade, this is anachronistic to say the least.

There may be some merit in the suggestion that green belts preserve our historic towns, but this could be achieved with far narrower ‘belts’ than the vast swathes of land we currently designate. The more general argument that towns and cities should be prevented from agglomerating simply flies in the face of human history: cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester exist solely because of infill growth.

But the most tragic of the five official policy justifications is the suggestion that urban containment will help rejuvenate our city centres. For the first half century of green belt policy the opposite was the case – centres became hollowed-out as wealthier citizens fled the city for dormitory towns on the far end of trunk roads and commuter lines. In the last 20 years we have piled ever more development within existing boundaries, driving up our skylines and saturating both road and rail networks.

Yet housing has to go somewhere. For at least 15 years the UK has on average built 100,000 too few new homes each year, as a result of which we now have among the most expensive and (less often noticed) the smallest new homes anywhere in Europe. Accommodation consumes a substantial amount of people’s disposable incomes (it is the single biggest cause of the cost-of-living crisis) and young people can only hope to buy if their parents can sub them, making housing policy hugely regressive.

Economic evidence – including, most notably, the government’s own Barker Review in 2004 – has repeatedly proved that house prices are driven by land prices, which are in turn driven by the supply of developable land. Yet England – and especially London and the south east – is fast running out of ‘brownfield’ land. We need to build an extra million homes (on top of current trend levels) over the next 10 years if we are just to tread water on housing costs. Those houses, be they private or ‘social’, need to go somewhere.

Green belt abolition need not be a declaration of war on the countryside, however. In fact, these million new homes could fit in just 3.7% of the green belt. In fact, the entire extra million could be accommodated on environmentally insignificant former farmland, currently inaccessible to the public, within 10 minutes of an existing London railway station. More generally, if we abolished green belt as a designation but protected all the environmentally important land, and all the land that was of genuine amenity value to local communities, using other existing classifications, we could protect far more land than the amount of the green belt in 1980 and still free up more land than we could ever hope to build upon.

Green belts are undeniably popular, but so is affordable housing. The next Parliament will need to think radically if it is to address the cost-of-living crisis and secure decent housing for the next generation. As shibboleths go, the green belt is one of the hardest to defend. It’s time to rid ourselves of this harmful anachronism.

Editor's note: For a different take on this issue, read ‘The importance of protecting green belt land’, in which Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), discusses the benefits of protecting green belt land, and how using brownfield sites can help tackle the country’s housing crisis.

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