Party Policies on the Greenbelt – Summing Up

This is the last of my series on the main parties’ policies for building houses in the greenbelt.

A disappointing roundup

In summary, no party is currently proposing any relaxation in restrictions on the use of greenbelt land for housebuilding.  As for the housing p0licies they do have, they demonstrate a serious lack of ambition in terms of willing the means to achieve the level of housebuilding that we need.

The LibDems have an admirable target of 300,000 houses a year, and Labour 200,000.  For the reasons outlined in my previous posts, I am not convinced that the concrete measures they propose will actually achieve these targets.  The parties are also giving themselves a very long time to meet the targets they have set – Labour speaks of building houses “for our children” and the LibDems of ending the housing crisis “in a generation”.  This will not help the current generation of 20 and 30 year olds.

There is a general failure to level with the public about the true reasons for our shortage of housing or to prioritise solutions.  There is a tendency to focus on ‘magic bullets”, like increasing the supply of affordable housing, controlling rents or encouraging local democracy.  I am sure these all have a role to play, but none will be sufficient without significant reform of our planning laws.

The economic benefits of housebuilding

I believe there is also a failure to appreciate the economic benefits of housebuilding.  It is well recognised that construction creates many jobs that could be filled by people now living in the UK.  The building of new houses is a great stimulus for manufacturers of appliances, carpets, furniture and so on.  Plus the additional services that would be needed in terms of roads, utilities, schools and doctors’ surgeries, which could be funded from the uplift in land values that results from the award of planning permission.

There is also the problem that the Tory Party, the Green Party and UKIP all appear to be implacably opposed (with the partial exception of the Green Party) to building on greenbelt land or reducing planning requirements in any way.  Together they represent a very large proportion of the electorate.

Reasons for hope

There are some reasons for hope, however:

– The LibDems say they will publish a long-term plan during the first year of the next Parliament which will set out how the goal is to be achieved.

– Vince Cable and Danny Alexander of the LibDems have both suggested that central government must get directly involved in housebuilding.

– Labour has welcomed the Lyons Report which highlights the role of greenbelt restrictions in limiting housebuilding and states that not all greenbelt land is of high environmental or amenity value.

– David Lammy, one of London’s candidates for the London mayoralty, has recommended in his housing report that a ‘Greenbelt Land Use Review Process’ should be established to bring together local elected officials, the Mayor, local people and developers to determine where there are greenfield sites in the London area that would better serve Londoners if they were developed for housing. You can read the full report “Crisis, what Crisis? Facing up to the London Housing Emergency” here: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/lfl/pages/29/attachments/original/1409831609/DL_Housing_280814_.pdf?1409831609

Lack of public buy-in to the relaxation of planning requirements and how to create this

One thing that is missing, however, and this is a very serious lack, is public buy-in to the idea of building on greenbelt land and relaxing planning requirements generally.  The greenbelt has become a sacred cow and politicians are terrified of incurring voters’ wrath if they appear to be at all “wet” on this issue.  I do not see this changing until more politicians from the major parties start to talk more frankly with the public about the compromises that must accompany any serious effort to tackle our housing shortage.  Moreover, we desperately need groups affected by the shortage, in particular young people and others who are priced out of decent accommodation in London, to mobilise themselves to do something about it.  Why for example do we not see young people demonstrating about the housing shortage?  They frequently demonstrate against university tuition fees, but high as such fees are, the lack of proper housing will have a much bigger impact on students’ lives as adults than the need to repay their student loans.

A “grand bargain” – enhanced building standards in exchange for the relaxation of planning requirements

I would also suggest there is scope for a “grand bargain”, involving a promise of much higher building standards in exchange for relaxed planning requirements.  I recently saw a development of new houses from a train on the way into Birmingham.  It was a most depressing sight, with rows of identikit houses on postage stamp lots, backed by tiny gardens.  Why could we not return to the building standards of the 1920s and 30s, when developers built the enormous numbers of semis and detached houses all around the country that are still so popular?  With proper ceiling heights, more spacious rooms, real gardens and energy efficient design.  There really is plenty of room for such housing, as Michael Lyons noted in his Report when he pointed out that houses and gardens occupy just 5.4% of UK land space.

Michael Ingle

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Categories: Economics, Housing, London, Politics

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