The Greenbelt: A Contentious Subject

Are the UK’s greenbelt areas an opportunity to fix the ongoing housing ‘crisis’, or is it more important than ever that we protect them? (Picture source: Financial Times).

According to every government since Thatcher, we are told we need more houses. Not just more houses but hundreds of thousands per year and millions to make up the shortfall of various previous governments. This has been accompanied with spiralling house prices and a reduction in both the size and quality of housing in the UK and, in recent times, a massive increase in private sector renting. All poor indicators if you are a prospective house buyer; and with no end in sight many are looking to alternatives, or unfortunately someone to blame. Of course, what I am alluding to here is the housing crisis, a great overarching term which gets banded about by politicians, house-builders, estate agents and the general public. I say ‘overarching’ intentionally, as it has so many strands which affect many people across different walks of life. This is pertinent in understanding why so many different solutions are offered.

The most common solution is to simply build more houses. However, this nice and simple approach doesn’t really do much for the young, first-time buyer. Working in property development, I can tell you land prices are fixed by market rate, so unless that developer wants to make a loss on the land they have just bought, then those prices are not likely to drop too far. Another approach, is government stimulus, as we saw with the 95% government backed mortgages. This, however, does little to cool the market and would arguably put those same houses just that little further out of reach to the next generation behind. In any instance, I am certainly not here to try and come up with a solution to this crisis. I want to bring up a lesser discussed topic: the lack of well located property, or, specifically, housing within areas where people really need it.

“Are the good intentions of the greenbelt still relevant within the context of modern day housing?”

An argument I once made, was that house prices become so inflated due to location because of their proximity to a number of things, but principally, jobs. There are of course other reasons, schools, amenities, vibrancy and character to name a few. Let’s face it though, without the money to pay for the mortgage, house prices are going nowhere. The only reason they are going somewhere is because someone is willing to pay for it, and for the vast majority, people pay for it through direct employment. Prid pro quo, employment makes house prices grow. This brings us onto the topic of the discussion: employment happens foremost in the most urban and built up areas: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, etc; the ‘Powerhouses’ per se. This is where, in order to make money, the majority of people have to be. So the crisis in this instance doesn’t really come from nationwide views of house numbers or prices, but the ‘megaflation’ (yes I made that up), of areas within close proximity of where people actually have to be.

London’s sprawling Greenbelt (Picture source: Barney’s Blog)

So, let’s consider the greenbelt, which is surrounding all of those aforementioned cities. It is an area of land specifically designed to “limit the urban sprawl.” In fact, it is also designed to encourage the re-generation of Brownfield sites and increase efficiency within cities. The question is though, is this enough? Are the good intentions of the greenbelt still relevant within the context of modern day housing? Let’s not forget the greenbelt policy came into effect in 1955, a time when Muesli was called cow feed (according to my dad), and when rationing had only just ended (also according to my dad but very much true). But seriously, housing was not just in a different time, it was a different concept.

Post war, the country needed rebuilding, literally! Therefore, could you consider the greenbelt to be outdated? An area of land designed stop encroachment by unscrupulous developers just happy to make a quick buck with no regard for the quality of housing they are providing. In fact, a large reason for the greenbelt was because of the benefits of intensity within urban spaces, better quality city centers and lower cost of poorly planned travel. However, are these issues really still relevant within current contexts? With the rise of online shopping, working from home, and better transport technology, you could argue that the same intensification isn’t as important as housing which meets the needs of those those living in our greenbelt areas.

On the other hand, our high streets are dying, which support millions of jobs across the country. As such, the case is strong as ever, that intensity breeds high quality centers, which are potentially crucial to the ecosystem of cities which produce so much for people. It also keeps a beautiful countryside, beautiful, whether you are a city dweller or a countryman, I think you will agree that it is a space worthy of admiration. Is it however, worthy of admiration at the expense of quality housing within reach of a person’s livelihood and potentially a better quality of life.

“…with growing numbers calling for reform, is the greenbelt a contentious subject, not because people want to build there, but because they see it as the easiest solution to the most complex problem?…”

Quite frankly, I don’t have the answer to this. I am sympathetic to the greenbelt, countryside and the numerous lovely buildings there. However, sympathy never solves a crisis. In any instance, more than two thirds of people support the greenbelt, and it would be political suicide to declare its abolition. It is food for thought though; with growing numbers calling for reform, is the greenbelt a contentious subject, not because people want to build there, but because they see it as the easiest solution to the most complex problem? The target is not the greenbelt, the target is quality housing in the right location, with sufficient numbers to suppress further house price growth. A tough ask indeed and whoever has the answer to that, will be either incredibly popular or incredibly rich. Take your pick.

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