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Insight & Opinion

How building on the greenbelt can fix the housing crisis

Author: Luke

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When talking about how to address the housing crisis, most politicians are quick to avoid mentioning the Green Belt. After all, there are no six words more likely to raise the hackles of NIMBYs (read: babyboomers) everywhere, than: “The Green Belt needs more affordable housing.”

However, Begravia estate agent, Best Gapp mentioned there’s a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to this issue. Of course, no one wants a concrete jungle, but with London set to reach its highest ever population of 8.6 million, a review of the Green Belt, called for back in January by The Adam Smith Institute; should be taken seriously.

And unlikely bedfellows as they may be, it seems that the Labour Party is somewhat in agreement with the free market think tank, with the party announcing in October last year that more homes should be built on the protected Green Belt if the land has little “environmental or amenity value”.

The report released by Sir Michael Lyons, a former BBC chairman, suggested that planning policy and building on the Green Belt will become one of the major battlegrounds in the run-up to May’s general election. The report expressed concern that “a number of towns and cities face extreme challenges in accessing land to grow to accommodate homes for all the people who work in the area”.

It added that “…this is the case for those areas with tightly drawn boundaries who must work with their neighbouring authorities to provide enough homes across a housing market area”.

The Green Belt was initially created to prevent “sprawl” and serves no other purpose. Three times bigger than the capital, the Adam Smith Institute says that a growing London could choose to build upwards or beyond the Green Belt and increase the level of daily commuting. Currently it is trying to both, and the result is that for many young people it’s almost impossible to buy homes in London. The think tank says that much of the 110,000 hectares that is situated within the M25 is attractive countryside, but there’s also dismal scrubland that could be improved by selective development. Building on just a third of the land could provide a million new homes.

Despite many academics, politicians and international organisations recognising that the UK is facing a housing crisis, it’s actually less built on than people imagine, especially in comparison to similar countries. Only two members of the European Union have less built environment per capita than the UK: Cyprus and the Netherlands. 90% of land in England is undeveloped and just 0.5% would be required to sort out the decade’s housing problems.

There are often misconceptions that Green Belts are bucolic idylls, whereas more than a third of them are devoted to intensive farming, which generates net environmental costs. By encouraging urban densification, Green Belts can actually take green space away from places where it’s most valued, with each hectare of city park estimated to be of £54,000 benefit per year in comparison to just £889 per hectare for Green Belt land on the fringe of an urban area. Plus, the Adam Smith Institute states that the welfare costs of Green Belts mean that accommodation is more expensive and this has contributed to the upward momentum of house prices.

The think tank says that the Green Belt should be abolished, in order to solve the housing crisis, but says that politicians and planners are unlikely to take this avenue. It proposes that the short term option could be to remove restrictions on land ten minutes’ walk of a railway station in order to allow the development of one million more homes within the Green Belt surrounding London.

We’ll have to wait and see who gets into power after the May general elections and what kind of changes the Labour Party will make to the planning system if they do form a government. Despite the pleas of Home Counties residents everywhere, it may be necessary at some stage to build on the Green Belt in order to provide the right types of property and enough quantity to sustain demand.

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