8 October 2018

Good news: The green belt is shrinking


The Campaign to Protect Rural England has released another in a long line of reports claiming that the green belt is disappearing at an alarming rate. Newspapers lapped this up, as they always do. Readers were told the development is a tragedy for the environment and a national disgrace. The articles were furnished with misleading images of bucolic idylls and tales of greedy developers determined to concrete over this green and pleasant land.

Is this really what is happening? And how worried should we really be?

The first and most important point is the reason parts of the green belt are being built on: because the UK is in the midst of a housing crisis. High housing costs have caused misery for millions of people across the UK. They mean that many people have to pay exorbitant rent and the prospect of owning a home had become an unrealistic dream for far too many.

The high cost of housing has even had an impact on fertility rates with people delaying having children as they are unable to move to a sufficiently large home. It also has a negative impact on economic growth by preventing people from moving to the most productive areas of the country.

The green belt came about as a result of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which allowed local authorities to include green belts in their town plans in order to prevent urban sprawl. However, it has failed to achieve this and has led to what is known as “leapfrog discontinuous development”. As a result of the green belt, expansion of Dartford, Guildford, High Wycombe, and Watford has been necessary. The result is longer commutes, again decreasing productivity.

Green belt protection, along with the rest of the UK’s incredibly restrictive planning system is the reason why housing is so expensive in this country. A study conducted by Hilber and Vermeulen concluded that the largest impact on house prices was caused by the regulatory constraints imposed by the planning system on development. They found that the planning system was responsible for 35 per cent of UK house prices.

A similar conclusion was reached by researchers at the LSE. They found that green belt protection was a contributing factor as to why housing is so expensive in the UK.

Green belt protection is increasing house prices, hampering economic growth, destroying the dreams of countless young people across the country, and exacerbating the housing crisis. As such, we should welcome the fact that part of it is being used to build homes.

We should go even further. In his excellent study for the Adam Smith Institute, Tom Papworth sets out the benefits of building on the green belt. Simply removing restrictions on land within a ten minutes’ walk of a railway station would allow the development of one million more homes within the green belt surrounding London alone.

If we are to deliver the homes which the country needs, then we need to increase supply. Therefore, we need to accelerate development on the green belt.

At this point in the article, you might be concerned that building on the green belt would be bad for the environment and destroy Britain’s rural landscape.

CPRE would have us believe that all of green belt land resembles something akin to the Garden of Eden but without the serpent. A place where happy couples and families can enjoy a day of pure bliss as they escape the cares of city life. It also likes to paint a picture of farmers on the green belt enjoying a pastoral lifestyle as they tend to their sheep, like something out of a Robert Herrick poem.

Although the green belt does contain beautiful green spaces, this is not the full story. For example, 35 per cent of England’s green belts are actually devoted to intensive farming, which has a negative environmental impact.

What is more, the excellent Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh spoke on a panel at the Conservative Party Conference last week where she described her surprise at visiting certain sites with green belt designation. Her examples included a car wash next to Tottenham Hale station and a disused airfield in Surrey. Much of the green belt is grubby, without a blade of grass in sight. It is a far cry from the picture painted by CPRE.

There is an incredibly strong case for building on the green belt. However, the government is in hock to NIMBYs who would oppose any development of this sort. They talk in terms of urban sprawl or raise concerns that it would lower the value of their own homes.

These are unjustifiable arguments. The term ‘sprawl’ is loaded and prejudiced, based on the fallacious assumption that housing is a bad thing that needs to be stopped. In reality, it means that homes are being provided for families. As one academic put it: “What to one person is sprawl to another is his home”

This approach also ignores the political reality. The Conservative Party is increasingly being seen as representing the wealthy at the expense of those who are less well off. One of the main areas where this is thought to be the case is housing. The high cost of housing has excluded many young people from the market, and so they are rightly annoyed. However, there is a danger that they will see capitalism as the reason for why they cannot afford to own their own home.

As such, the Conservatives and those who would traditionally vote for them risk a situation where the Tories are booted out and replaced by a government led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Having a few extra homes near your own is a small price to pay to avoid this happening.

If we want to tackle one of the biggest injustices in society then we need to build more houses. That should include building on the green belt, most of which has no agricultural or environmental benefit. The government should ignore CPRE’s propaganda and stand up to the NIMBYs in its midst.

Ben Ramanauskas is a Researcher at The Taxpayers' Alliance.