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.

Fight to Save England’s Beauty?

It is ironic that The Sunday Times chose to print and report a letter of endorsement of the CPRE’s ‘charter to save our countryside’ from a collection of the Country’s literati in the same week that it also highlighted the MoD’s intent to sell the Household Cavalry Barracks in Hyde Park. The publication of both serves as a magnifying glass on the difficulties facing planners and developers in meeting our national housing requirements.

The basic premise of the CPRE’s argument is not new.  The Government is giving preferential treatment to ‘virgin’ (it’s always evocative) greenfield sites over brownfield options (factually not correct); there are numerous empty homes up and down the country waiting to be put to use (ditto), and; planners and developers have no imagination (quite a generalisation).  The typical claim is that much better use should be made of ‘derelict urban sites crying out for investment’, and that we should be building affordable homes in the right places, rather than executive homes.

Which brings me nicely to the Cavalry Barracks.  The Sunday Times speculate that the six acre site will probably have a market value of circa £500M, which (as ridiculous as it is to say) doesn’t seem unlikely based on comparable land values in prime Central London.  Taking a rudimentary rule of thumb, the Barracks might deliver in the order of 800 homes.  That equates to a pro rata land value of £625,000 per unit – and that’s before a single unit has been designed or built.  It’s also before a single penny has been contributed to the Mayor or Westminster City Council through financial contributions (obligatory).  So even if an altruistic developer were to purchase the site and to provide them all as ‘affordable’ dwellings, there wouldn’t be a single unit available for less than seven figures.  A much more likely scenario is that any development will look to outdo the performance of One Hyde Park, which has seen price per sq. ft. levels exceeding £7,000.  So a 700,000sq.ft. two-bedroom flat could cost about £5 million. And that’s before anyone questions the social cost of one of the Capital’s favourite landmarks being permanently lost to redevelopment.

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I have never disputed the strength of the CPRE’s conviction, and I continue to maintain that they are the best organised, and most effective property pressure group bar none.  But the picture depicted in the Sunday Times article is just plain lazy.  For example, we are told that the Country is about to embark on an unprecedented, and excessive, construction programme.  Firstly, it is not unprecedented.  We managed it after the Second World War when the Country had come through a much greater crisis, and the housing stock delivered during the 1950’s continues to be recycled to provide much needed accommodation for hard working families up and down the country.  Secondly, it is not excessive: the homes we need to build are the homes we need.  What a luxury for some of our fabled writers and artists to complain about their changing landscape when at least three generations (the last, the current and the next) cannot get on the housing ladder.  How many of the signatories to the CPRE’s campaign cannot afford to buy their own home?

The likes of the Cavalry Barracks are clearly exceptional instances, but I have yet to see a brownfield site deliver a combination of more family units, more affordable accommodation, provide more investment in infrastructure, including health and education, than a greenfield alternative.  They are very rarely executive enclaves, whereas many brownfield sites becomes just that; that is often the price of regeneration.  The country urgently needs the property industry to put forward as powerful a case for development as the CPRE makes for preservation.