Why building on the Green Belt won’t solve the housing crisis

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” Joni Mitchell sang wistfully in 1970. Similar arguments were made today (16 February) at City Hall, where the London Assembly Planning Committee hosted experts to debate how we can provide enough living space without compromising on quality of life.

It’s a question that’s divided the business community, environmentalists and planners. “The green built is often cited as a barrier to housing,” said Dame Fiona Reynolds. “However, there is no shortage of land to build on. There are currently 400,000 planning permissions and another 130,000 in the pipeline – that’s eight years’ supply.”

Reynolds argued that simply building on the Green Belt won’t help a young generation locked out of the housing market. If London’s precious greenery is snuffed out then everyone will suffer from a lower quality of life and impoverished environment – including those in new homes.

Chris Brown, Chief Executive of Igloo Housing, believes that every alternative must be explored before the greenbelt is loosened. “If there is an area of the greenbelt that can be built on, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should build houses on it,” he said.

Brown believes that any alteration to the Green Belt must present the most sustainable economic value. If the economy doesn’t prosper, no one will be able to afford a house. Agriculture, factories and business centres must all be considered.

Janet Eskew, town planner and past president of royal town planning institute, argued that there is simply no need to build on the Green Belt. “There is a sustained assault on the Green Belt as result of the Housing Crisis. There are calls that suggest the Green Belt is a last ditch attempt to solve the housing crisis because of a perceived lack of land. This is unimaginative and misinformed.

“Local authorities are under tremendous pressure, partly due to a lack of town planners and the need to demonstrate a five year supply of land. It is ubiquitous, this call to build on Green Belt and from developers. We have sympathy with young people who can’t afford to buy a house, and believe an increased supply will mean lower house prices. This wouldn’t happen. The housing crisis won’t be resolved by releasing land.

“We are already releasing land. The policy allows for this – when we have exhausted all other land in our districts. Urban sprawl is biggest threat to climate change. Sprawl is low density. It is resource-hungry and an inefficient use of land.”

Alice Roberts of the Campaign to Protect Rural England cited figures which suggest there are enough places earmarked for housing away from the green belt. There are currently 260,000 planning permissions for homes in London; 300,000 opportunity areas and the potential for 100,000 homes in areas ripe for regeneration.

In the last 10 years, 50 housing estates with over 30,000 homes have undergone regeneration schemes, delivering nearly twice as many new homes on the sites of London’s demolished social housing estates are there were before.

In 2014, the Campaign to Protect Rural England estimated that there is around 2,650 hectares of brownfield land in London suitable for development for housing with capacity for 146,530 homes. The Centre for Cities suggested the same year that if every brownfield site were developed to its full capacity there would be enough land for around 382,500 new homes in the capital.

“Brownfield land is a renewable source,” Brown said. “The Green Belt is not. We are not running out of brownfield land anytime soon.”

According to Eskew, greater density is an easy alternative to paving over the Green Belt. “People can live in density,” she said. “Some of the most popular places to live in the UK – Bath and Edinburgh for example – have great density but high quality buildings with good design. Density can be a very good thing if done well.”

Meanwhile, Ben Derbyshire, Chair of HTA Design, argued that opening small pockets of land around London would make the Green Belt argument obsolete. For example, Transport for London owns around 5,700 acres of property in London. Urbanised stations have the capacity to deliver around 100,000 homes across London.

The Housing White Paper couldn’t escape a mention. Politically, of course, it had to support the Green Belt, but it also shifted the focus away from simply loosening planning restrictions. “For the first time, the government didn’t start with releasing more land,” said Eskew. “It encourages us to build houses in a way that meets our social aspirations.”

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