It was a sweltering late summer’s day in parliament almost a year ago when a thinly attended debate began in the Commons. The debate was regarding the projected population growth of the United Kingdom. Around halfway through, Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Churchill, MP for Mid Sussex and all-round butterball of corpulence, slowly unstuck himself from the green benches, and declared that ‘if population growth continues to rise in such a way, the UK will reach 70 million by the year 2029.’ If one wishes to measure this in bricks and mortar, Soames’ figures suggest this population growth will be the combined equivalent of the current populations of Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Oxford. The Office for National Statistics, Soames’ source, has also asserted that to comfortably accommodate a population of 70 million, the United Kingdom will need to build around 4 million new homes; to cope with current immigration rates alone we need to construct a new home every seven minutes. Soames’ projections may seem a little Malthusian in their alarm. To my knowledge, he botched his figures once before in a debate in 2002. This time around, however, his trepidation has drawn forthright support; numerous crossbench MPs and an assortment of think tanks certainly share his pessimism.
In lieu of this hypothesis, it was presumed the government’s introduction of the new Housing White Paper, released in February, would be conspicuous in its radicalism. It was not. Since becoming Housing Ministers, Javid and Barwell have trimmed away at Labour’s 2015 manifesto; legislating the banning of letting fees and engaging in fugacious rhetoric of ‘longer tenancies for working families.’ Criticism for the bill was hardly universal, but prevalent enough for the paper to be regarded as a misstep. To the left, the government’s soft touch on land-banking is the biggest gripe – the process whereby private construction companies simply gain planning permission, allow the value of the land to increase and then sell. Conversely, the right consistently argue for the culling of the government’s property taxation, the highest in the developed world, in order to incentivise construction. The government seems content to mollify neither party, continually dithering and favouring insipid measures over root and branch reform.
For all the intellectual energy exerted by housing associations, charities, think tanks and government bodies, there is one area unstirred by debate: the greenbelt. For any full-blooded Englishman, the greenbelt remains a solitary bastion against the urban sprawl, providing the lungs for our smoky cityscapes, presenting those annexed by urbanised smog the opportunity to frolic in blissful nature. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England estimate that eight out ten of us support the greenbelt. Of course we do, it is sacrosanct. As the CPRE continually remind the government, the high levels of housing demand or housing targets do not in themselves amount to the “exceptional circumstances” required to justify changing Green Belt boundaries.
I do have to wonder whether there may be a degree of subjectivity here, especially in the phrase ‘exceptional circumstances.’ Whether occupants of suburbia or shire, it is unlikely that many homeowners will accept building upon the greenbelt in any event. This is understandable. If your idea of the good life is reliant upon clean air, open green spaces, country walks and muddy wellies, you will flatly oppose any construction on your nearby greenbelt, especially if such assets combine to greatly inflate the price of your house. Yet for someone viewing our housing market holistically, with the benefit of Soames’ projections and Javid’s acceptance that the housing market is effectively ‘broken’, it is difficult to conclude that our housing market is in anything other than in exceptional times.
Allow me to outline why. If you are like Shelter’s Tristan Carlyon and enjoy the science of comparing house-price inflation with food inflation, you may be interested to note that if 1971 food prices had risen in line with house prices, a chicken today would cost £51.18. A four-pint carton of milk I here you ask? £10.45. Indeed, for the 8.6 million people who live in our capital and hand over two –thirds of the average wage to private landlords every year, or the 25 per cent of us relying on ‘the Bank of Mum and Dad’ to prop up the mortgage repayments the situation is exceptional. And it is only moving in one direction.
There is no panacea here, but it is surely time to re-evaluate the greenbelt as part of a holistic approach. It is unlikely such an idea will be given any credence whatsoever; the greenbelt is so blissfully inculcated in our national imagination that people envisage the entirety of our countryside to like Dedham Vale or Wivenhoe Park. The Barker Report in 2006 found that actually, upon closer inspection, 11.4 per cent of the greenbelt is ‘urbanised.’ These are old industrialised sites, heavily developed farmland or scrubland which have limited amenity value to society but are still subject to stringent planning laws. The inflexibility of such planning law means that local councils are pressured by Westminster to squeeze construction into their brownfield boundaries; this often causes a perverse environmental impact within town boundaries such as the building of houses on designated floodplains in vulnerable areas.
In our cities, the greenbelt constraint will mean that over the course of the next few years there will exist a drive to ‘build higher’, at the same time as a glut of scientific evidence is beginning to suggest that high-rises and the creation of ‘dark sombre and sad urban canyons’ instead of tree-lined terrace houses, has a substantially negative impact on the mood of citizens. Why are we doing this to our urban areas? Do we not understand that by placing such stringent controls on the greenbelt, we simply shift the environmental impact elsewhere? As underlined by previous Backbencher contributors, our capital city has air pollution worse than Beijing and 360 primary schools operate in areas which break the legal air pollution limit. By tightening the green noose around our necks, we now have a greenbelt that achieves precisely the opposite of why it was originally conceived in 1947: the provision of more space and a greener environment for our urban population. A report by the Adam Smith Institute recently outlined how by simply removing restrictions on ‘greenbelt’ sites around London’s suburban railway stations, the city could manage 1 million more homes. With soaring house prices and air pollution beginning to characterise our capital city, surely it is time to loosen our green noose.