Proposals for more UK housebuilding
Many UK politicians, particularly from the Tory, LibDem and Labour parties, are promising to build more houses after the next election in May 2015 – whether it is 200,000 a year, 250,000 or even 300,000. Housing experts seem to be agreed that we must urgently lift housebuilding from its current level of around 130,000 a year to at least 250,000, if we are to make a serious dent in the huge undersupply that has built up over the past 30 years.
I have long been concerned about the lack of housebuilding in the UK, which is forcing more and more people to occupy substandard accommodation, if they can afford even that. It is also aggravating inter-generational inequality, with middle aged and older people in the UK often owning houses that have shot up in value, while their children and grandchildren can barely afford to rent, let alone buy a house. At the same time, houses and flats that do get built tend to be very small and of poor quality compared with those that were built before WWII, like the millions of 1920s and 30s semis and detached houses up and down the land.
The need to build on parts of greenbelt land
I favour strenuous efforts to build much more, and far better quality, housing in the UK than we have been managing for a very long time. I am also certain that we must allow building on parts of the greenbelt if we are to see a step change in housebuilding. Building on brownfield land is all well and good, but there is simply not enough of it to provide the extra housing we need, and much of it is not where people want (or need) to live, such as around London, Oxford and Cambridge.
Unfortunately the greenbelt has become a sacred cow since it was introduced in the late 1940s. We clearly need to protect large parts of the greenbelt around our major cities for reasons including their scenic beauty, recreational uses and to prevent the strip developments that are so typical of large cities in the United States. However, it is not necessary to protect for ever and a day the large areas of greenbelt we now have. I have visited several areas of greenbelt around London, all within walking distance of underground stations, where land designated as greenbelt is either not occupied at all or is used for golf courses and paddocks. For example: Denham, Bexley and Bexleyheath and Dagenham – see my blog posts on these visits and the accompanying photographs via the links below:
Bexley and Bexleyheath
Opponents of building on the greenbelt tend to catastrophize about “concreting over the southeast”, as if building on parts of greenbelt would automatically result in the London area becoming a vast greater Tokyo. Surely we would be able to implement a selective policy able to distinguish between areas of greenbelt that must be preserved and those that could be built on without loss of local amenities. At the same time, we should ensure that new housing built on greenbelt land is of much higher quality than we have become used to – with larger rooms, higher ceilings and larger gardens or balconies.
Political support for building on greenbelt land
We will never be able to tackle the UK’s housing shortage in a serious way unless we do permit some housebuilding on the greenbelt. Promising to build all the houses we need on brownfield land or on plots of unused publicly held land is not credible. Politicians who say they can meet building targets of 250,000 or 300,000 without building on greenbelt are simply not prepared to will the necessary means and we should not believe them.
There are nonetheless signs of increasing support for building on the greenbelt. The idea of building on the greenbelt was until very recently the preserve of what I might describe as a “lunatic fringe” of think tanks, commentators and CityAM. There are signs however that it is now being taken up by individuals who have at least a passing chance of implementing their ideas, such as Vince Cable, the LibDem Minister who recently spoke about building houses on golf courses in Surrey, David Lammy, one of the Labour candidates for Mayor of London, and Sir Michael Lyons, who was commissioned by the Labour Party to publish “The Lyons Housing Review”.
Prospects for the post-election period
In the end, building on the greenbelt will have to be authorised by Parliament, as current planning law simply does not permit it. So what are the chances of our next Parliament, which will be elected in May 2015, changing the law to permit such building? The parties have not yet published their final election Manifestos, but I have been examining what they have been saying in recent months to see if there may be any chance of movement on this issue following next year’s election. I will be writing a series of posts over the next few days on the results of my research.