Andrew Wood blogs about housing and the Green Belt
CPRE’s Andrew Wood recently took part in a panel discussion at the Liberal Democrat Conference fringe, on the subject of the tension between protecting the Green Belt and fulfilling housing need. This is what he said.
There is no tension between protecting Green Belt and fulfilling housing need, because Green Belt is not the obstacle. The Housing White Paper is called ‘Fixing the Broken Housing Market’, which marks an acceptance at the highest level that the housing market is broken.
But the planning system is also broken. Since 2010 it has been ripped apart in the mistaken belief that it was an obstacle to getting houses built. The planning system has been particularly undermined by what I’d call ‘Henry Ford Localism’: Government says, “you do what you like locally, so long as you do it exactly the way we tell you to.” Meanwhile, local planning authorities have been stripped of their skills, resources and morale.
CPRE campaigns for the right homes in the right places – and that needs a strong, well-resourced planning system. Green Belt is about the only part of the planning system that isn’t broken, so it would be crazy to break that too. Green Belt is the strongest and most distinctive feature of the UK planning system – its long-term success is that the UK has maintained a differentiation between urban and rural areas that doesn’t exist in many other countries. The principle problem is that Green Belt is the only tool left in the box that has any effect. If an authority doesn’t want a site to be developed that is in the Green Belt, they can usually prevent it; if it isn’t in the Green Belt they have very little hope. All their other tools have been disarmed. This means that urban greenspaces, places where the schools are full, where public transport is poor, are often vulnerable to inappropriate development – and Green Belt is often not the right tool to protect those sites. So what is needed are other tools, with equivalent strength to Green Belt, to do other jobs in shaping development.
The Housing White Paper makes encouraging noises about the sanctity of Green Belt, but there’s very little sign of these other tools. It also appears to open the door to regular, 5-yearly reviews of Local Plans, and that might undermine the permanence of Green Belt. That would be bad, because permanence creates expectation that the land will not be developed, and that keeps it available for other uses that support quality of life – recreation, enhancing landscape, making space for nature – things that bring the countryside into town. If regular review creates an incentive for landowners to continually promote Green belt sites for development, those enhancement opportunities will be lost.
That’s not to say that Green Belts should never change under any circumstances. But so far in the eleven Local Plans that I’ve worked on I’ve yet to see an argument for taking land out of the Green Belt that I think really stacks up. There are three reasons I say this.
- Firstly, housing targets are being inflated way beyond the realms of realism on the basis of economic growth scenarios that depend on a new workforce of a scale that just doesn’t exist. It’s wrong to plan for such unlikely outcomes.
- Secondly, there are thousands of homes’ worth of unbuilt planning permissions in the system, and build rates aren’t catching up, so the idea that there’s a shortage of land is plain nonsense.
- Thirdly, the homes that are being built are just more of the same, when what we need is much more diversity of types and tenure.
The combination of these three factors means that land is being taken out of the Green Belt to supply land that isn’t needed, for houses that may not be built, and the ones that are built are the wrong ones. There is no logic to this.
If the government was serious about tackling the housing shortage, it would reform the land market so that land is put to the most appropriate use, be it built development or greenspace, rather than hoarded as a capital investment. It would ensure that every new home built was suitable and affordable to the people who need to be housed; that it was zero-carbon; and that it contributed to a genuine place-making agenda of urban renewal, supporting town centres, mixed uses and urban ecosystems. By contrast, the government thinks only about quantity, and has weakened requirements for affordability and quality in a failed attempt to boost quantity.
Whilever this shortsighted folly continues to characterise policy, then there is no benefit to be gained from taking land from the Green Belt. If there was an exceptional circumstance for changing the Green Belt, it might be the chance to do something truly exceptional instead. But that’s not how the system works at the moment. Once land is out of the Green Belt it becomes open season for generic, unsustainable, soulless, unaffordable housing estates whose only achievement is to fan the flames of NIMBYism. Breaking the last tool in the box is the last thing we should be contemplating.