Green Belt – Friend or Foe?

The age old debate rages on – why should the Green Belt make room for future development when government policies have historically been put in place to protect it?

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The answer? This depends on which one of these statements you agree with:

1.       There is no housing crisis.

2.       There is a housing crisis.

The Government has previously stated that while the Green Belt is an important protection against urban sprawl, councils can review local designations to promote growth. Councils are actively encouraged to use the flexibility set out in the NPPF to tailor the extent of Green Belt land in their local authority area to reflect local circumstances with regards to housing need. However, there are concerns amongst the Conservative grassroots that the Government are losing voters who believe that the protection of the Green Belt is being completely ignored, and that the Government is pressurising local authorities to increase housing targets when in their opinion, there is no housing shortage or insufficient land supply.

The facts cannot be ignored.

First time buyers are increasingly struggling to get on the housing ladder; the average age of first time buyers is now 40 across many parts of the Country. Many have to rely on subsidies from parents, which essentially means that only a small proportion can really afford to buy a home without help. Many more homes (and affordable homes) are needed.

There is an increasing population. This is partly down to immigration, yes, but also down to the fact that the population is ageing. Importantly, people are choosing to stay in cities with families further increasing the urban population. Do you remember the Specials single – Ghost Town? They wouldn’t write that song today.

The problem of housing need is also compounded by the fact that people are living their lives differently. Older people are staying in the family home long after the children have left. Many more people live alone these days and Englishmen and women tend to demand a castle (that is, a spacious house rather than a one bed flat), and I don’t especially criticise them for that. I wouldn’t want someone telling me to move.  Whatever the reason for the increase in the demand, housing need must be quantified to ensure housing growth is realistic.

There is also simply not enough Brownfield land available. Brownfield sites which are vacant or available in places where housing demand is high are in very short supply. People forget that Brownfield sites do not just magically become available when they are needed.

The recent recession has led to many sites receiving planning permission but not having the funds to be implemented. Those who criticise so called ‘Land Banking’ should be reminded that developers are businesses. Simple as. If they are not going to be able to make a profit when they sell the houses then there is no economic sense in building them. In any case, the recent economic recovery is witnessing these sites increasingly come forward.

In London especially, these facts are heightened. Despite this increased growth, why is London the only major world city that is not expanding in land area? And at what point does the absence of an availability of family housing reduce the attractiveness of a global city?

London and the other major urban areas of England should not be left behind because housing provision is hindered by a reluctance to face facts and review the Green Belt.

These issues are explored further in an excellent article in the Guardian entitled ‘Build on the green belt to solve London’s housing crisis’ by Colin Wiles: http://gu.com/p/3jzgz

The myth of “concreting over the countryside”

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has good intentions – there is no doubt about that – but often they directly contradict themselves. While the CPRE often calls for affordable housing in rural areas, it has this week objected to new Government proposals that would make it easier to convert farm buildings into housing.

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All this used to be fields… ( Some rights reserved by ☺ Lee J Haywood)

A spokesman says the plans “will mean housing popping up in unsuitable locations in the remote countryside. And it’s not just the housing but the garages, sheds, lighting and fences that will come with them that will destroy the character of rural areas.” It appears wrong-headed to oppose the use of existing (and I am sure often derelict) barns, workshops and other outbuildings for housing, while asking for rural affordable housing to be delivered…where? On Greenfield sites? There are few Brownfield sites in rural areas that can be used for housing. Surely converting dilapidated farm buildings into new homes would only enhance the character of rural areas?

But this feeds into a much wider issue that has held back the delivery of new homes for decades. Every time a new development is proposed on a Greenfield / Green Belt site in the countryside, the cries of “greedy developers, concreting over the countryside” or causing endless “urban sprawl” quickly drown out the calls for new homes and affordable housing. While the younger generation find themselves unable to get on the housing ladder, the campaigners write their objection letters from spacious family homes with large gardens, many of which were built by “greedy developers” on Greenfield / Green Belt sites prior the boom in house prices that began in the 1990s.

The reality of course is this: the British countryside has not been concreted over, it is not being concreted over, and it will not be concreted over – even if the Government embarks on a house building program to rival the post-war effort (unlikely of course). In the UK, around 80% of us live in towns and cities. In terms of what has actually been built on, the statistics issued by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment reveal some clear facts:

  • 93% of the UK has not been built on.
  • Of the 7% which is classified as urban, over 50% is green space – parks, playing fields, allotments.
  • Almost a fifth of the 7% functions as domestic gardens.
  • Nearly 7% of the urban 7% is made up of rivers, lakes, canals and reservoirs.
  • Overall, almost 80% of urban areas are actually non-developed, whether that is preserved natural environments or man made.
  • Therefore, the proportion of the UK’s landscape that is actually “concreted over” is approximately 2.3%.

Of course, one can say lies, damned lies and statistics, but this does illuminate the misrepresentation at the heart of the campaigns against new homes that strangle the debate and have contributed to the housing crisis that we now face. This is without exploring the reality of rural Britain – that it is an industrial landscape formed by intensive farming and food production. There are few completely natural and undeveloped areas of the UK.

Those who are lucky enough to own homes in rural and suburban areas in the South East of England may complain that development is focused on their area of the country, but the simple fact is that London is the economic powerhouse of the UK and a magnet for talent, entrepreneurship and prosperity – our economy is not dispersed across different cities and regions as it is in France, Italy or Germany, and no Government can address this imbalance without upsetting the free market economy that all of the mainstream political parties are signed up to. Therefore, those who live in the South East of England benefit disproportionately from this economic success, and logically should accept a fair share of new development for homes, industry and requisite infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the debate over planning and development in the UK rarely touches on logic. The CPRE may have good intentions, but they have to accept that development on Green Belt / Greenfield was not and is not always a bad thing. The same needs and motivations that prompted development in the countryside back in 1953, 1963, 1973 and 1983 still exist in 2013 – and these are not going to go away.

Only 2.3% of the UK has been “concreted over”. A tiny increase in this could make a significant dent in our housing crisis, stimulate the economy, and create a more sensible planning framework based on need and evidence. However, local and national government is not delivering a consensual approach to accommodating development, and so for the foreseeable future, it will fall on the development industry to take the strain.

Only the development industry can solve the housing crisis

The main party conferences are over, and the latest Government reshuffle has quickly faded from the headlines.  Housing is a serious issue in need of attention but ministers do not appear to have a clear strategy for solving the problem.
 
Sadly, the situation in 2013 is like any other year. It has been about a quarter of a century since the UK was building anywhere near enough homes to meet its needs.  We are currently at around 100,000 per annum, while the estimate of need stands at 230,000 – not including the severe backlog.

This graph from the FT shows the huge decline in housebuilding since the 1950s, 60s and 70s:

http://blogs.ft.com/ftdata/2013/02/22/about-those-housebuilding-stats/housing-completions-england/
 
Mark Prisk, the outgoing housing minister, was very effective at making things happen according to many in the sector. But he’s been moved to make way for a more media savvy operator, which appears to be unnecessary disruption for a policy which is driven by No 10 and the Treasury in any case. It is the Government’s role to create the right environment for new homes to be delivered but locally and nationally, it is failing.
 
Despite the Localism agenda and more supposed freedom for local authorities, councils are unlikely to get heavily involved in housebuilding ever again due to financial and capacity issues.  Conversely, our councils in their role as local planning authorities are sometimes actively obstructing new development. This happens through short term political decisions to reject schemes in the face of local objections or by not getting their local plans in order and allocating housing land in the right places. Meanwhile, housing associations do good work, but are generally reliant on others for funding and represent a small proportion of the new homes that are built.
 
Therefore, the only people who can really solve the national housing crisis are the private sector. It is up to developers to push the case for new homes and infrastructure – corporately and locally.

We cannot wait another quarter century for local and national government to get their house in order.

 

Brownfield sites are the icing on the cake. They are not the cake.

This is an amended version of a letter that appeared in the Evening Standard on 21st August 2013: http://www.iceniprojects.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/We-need-more-than-Help-to-Buy.pdf

Help to Buy is a means to an end; but it is further exposing underlying problems in our ability to deliver the right homes, in the right locations, expeditiously and cost-effectively.

A contractor client of mine recently remarked that the residential side of the construction industry has gone through the roof post-Help to Buy. However, since the credit crunch, not only has the industry lost skilled labour, it has lost the factories and production lines to deliver raw material.  As a consequence, not only is is extremely difficult to acquire what might be regarded as elementary products (facing bricks, breeze blocks etc), basic supply and demand economics is pushing the price up.  Another client was lamenting the fact that the cost of paint required to complete an executive residence has increased since 2008 by 30%.  These pressures will be felt across the housing spectrum, and not simply the top end.

So this tells us that we are not presently geared up to deliver the homes we need.  But this is not a conspiracy set by volume housebuilders.  They are commodity based like any other industry; it’s in their interest to build and sell as many homes as possible – they become bigger, more profitable, more resilient, more capable of driving economies of scale.  Equally, the supply chain wants to make and sell more products.  

In my opinion, the problem lies in the continuing uncertainty created by the planning system, and the myth and hypocrisy that is allowed to fester by politicians and social commentators that we can build our way out of our housing crisis – and it is a crisis – by relying on brownfield sites. Especially in London, brownfield sites are the icing (and in the majority of zone 1 and 2 areas the cherry) on the cake.  They are not the cake. 

To make a marked difference in the delivery of housing, we need to show the ambition and foresight last seen directly after the Second World War.  I find it remarkable (but equally depressing) that the Mayor has been able to openly (and to an extent credibly) promote the possibility of building a Thames Gateway airport (and effectively closing Heathrow), but presumably considers it too politically incendiary to make a case for greenfield housing development on the edge of London and the hinterland of the South East.  

Ultimately, there is only one answer, but I’m not expecting to see it written in a party manifesto any time soon.