Labour and the Greenbelt

Continuing my series of blogs on party policies in relation to housebuilding on the greenbelt, I now turn to the Labour Party.

Labour’s website does contain a short housing policy (you can read it here: http://www.labour.org.uk/issues/detail/house-building), which commits a Labour government to building 200,000 homes a year by 2020.  That would of course be the last year of a five year Parliamentary term, if they achieve it, so they have given themselves a fair amount of leeway to hit their target.  Nonetheless, they say they have “a plan to make this happen”.  The plan has three elements:

– give local authorities the power to remove planning permission from builders who “hoard land”;

– deliver a new generation of “New Towns and Garden Cities”;

– give councils the power to charge higher rates of council tax on empty properties and ensure new homes are advertised first in the UK and not overseas.

These proposals are all well and good, but they do not in my view amount to a plan that would achieve 200,000 new builds a year, whether in five years or 20.  There is clearly some potential for harrying builders into speeding up the building of houses for which they have planning permission, but builders cannot survive without at least some land held in reserve.  Imposing higher council taxes on properties purchased as pure investments instead of for actual use is also well overdue.  It could be difficult to implement in practice, however – I can imagine a new job of “house sitter” coming into existence to occupy investment properties on a temporary basis each year to avoid the extra charge.  As for new towns, it will take at least 10 and more likely 20 or more years to get such towns off the ground on anything like the scale that is needed.   And think of the environmental impact of building a ring of new towns around London, many of whose residents will need to commute on high speed train services to their work in central London.  I can only conclude that while Labour is willing the right sort of target (though 200,000 is not really very ambitious), it is not willing the necessary means to achieve it.

Happily, the housing policy set out on Labour’s website is not the whole story and we may see it change before the election.  That is because the Party appointed the Lyons Review Commission, under the chairmanship of Sir Michael Lyons (formerly a council chief executive and Chairman of the BBC Trust), to study the UK’s housing problems and recommend solutions.  The Lyons Commission duly issued a report in October 2014 entitled “Mobilising across the nation to build the homes our children need”.  

The Report can be read here: http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/uploads/editor/files/The_Lyons_Housing_Review_2.pdf

The Lyons Report identifies two major causes of our housing crisis:

– there is not enough land being brought forward for new homes, through an “artificial scarcity” of land; and

– the UK’s capacity to build new homes has shrunk drastically, with the house building industry reduced to a small number of volume house builders.

The Report sets out to provide a “roadmap” for tackling the causes of our housing shortage in order to reach the Party’s 200,000 homes a year target.  The Report is comprehensive and merits detailed study, covering such matters as where we should build homes, how to revitalise existing towns and cities, the potential for garden cities, the difficulties of using brownfield land, increasing the supply of building land through the use of ‘local plans’, speeding up planning, ‘up-skilling’ planners and the need for a bespoke approach to London’s unique housing needs.

The Report does not have a major focus on the use of greenbelt land, but what it does say on this topic is telling.  It states that 12.4% of all land in the UK is protected greenbelt, while only 1.1% of land is used for actual houses (5.4% if you include the gardens).  In particular it points out that protecting greenbelt land restricts the ability to grow:

“Submissions to the review and a number of studies highlight that the policy of containing urban areas in England has been highly effective in its objective of preventing urban sprawl and stopping adjacent cities from merging together.

The Report accepts that greenbelt restrictions have value in preserving areas of amenity close to urban areas for local residents to enjoy.  However, it goes on to say that:

“evidence to the review has also demonstrated that not all green belt land is of high environmental or amenity value and that the tight boundaries around our urban areas can put pressure on precious green spaces and brownfield land which can be of high environmental value within urban areas themselves.”

The Report states that Cambridge, Oxford, York and Bristol illustrate the issue most clearly, oddly leaving out any mention of London.

To those who would say that the answer is simply to shift development to parts of the country which are at present under-populated, the Report says:

“The challenge is not just to provide a far greater number of homes, but to ensure they are in places where people want to live and can access jobs, transport, services and facilities.  The demand for new homes is highest in our centres of economic growth.  As the Centre for Cities has explained, for more than fifty years, the general direction of travel for growth has been southwards, and away from northern industrial and port towns.”

While the references to greenbelt housebuilding do not exactly leap out of the Report, they were immediately noticed by the press.  The Telegraph published an article on 17th October which opened with the statement that “Labour will allow more homes to be built on parts of the protected Green Belt if the land has little ‘environmental or amenity value'”.  Roberta Blackman-Woods, the Labour shadow planning minister, undercut this, saying that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) “has built-in protection for the greenbelt and the natural environment and we will not change this protection”.  She also referred to the existing power of local authorities “to de-designate or swap greenbelt land in the context of making a local plan, where there is a clear housing need.”

According to Labour Press, Ed Miliband warmly welcomed the review in a speech in Milton Keynes on 16th October, stating that the plan proposed in the Report would meet Labour’s commitment to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020.  He mentioned three key policies that would guarantee this:

– Local communities will have the power to build the homes needed in the places where people want to live.

– Councils will be required to produce a plan for homebuilding in their area and allocate sufficient land for development to meet the needs of people in the area.

– First time buyers in an area will get priority access to new homes when they go on sale.

Ed Miliband did not say exactly how local communities will find the land they need without impinging on the rules protecting the greenbelt, but his overall support for the Report suggests that he is at least aware of the issue.

We must now await developments, and in particular the publication of Labour’s final election Manifesto, to see if the Labour Party will strengthen their existing housing policy by explaining how the 200,000 homes a year target can be met if the existing protection for greenbelt land remains undiluted.

 

 

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