Four original takes on the green belt and housing crisis: Part One

Conflicting and yet complementary views were on show in the debate "Is the green belt a luxury we can't afford?", part of a series of talks at The Building Centre, curated by The Built Environment Trust and the Landscape Institute.

Experts from a range of different fields and practices, brought unique experiences and knowledge around the issue: Paul Cheshire, Professor of Economic Geography at London School of Economics; Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of Campaign to Protect Rural England: Janet Askew, immediate past-President at Royal Town Planning Institute: Toby Lloyd, Head of Policy at Shelter UK, and Barney Stringer, Director at Quod who collaborated on producing the recent report for Shelter, When Brownfield Isn't Enough. Lewis Blackwell, co-curator of the exhibition, Beyond the Green Belt, and Executive Director of Strategy at The Building Centre, chaired the debate.

(From left to right: Professor Paul Cheshire, the LSE; Barney Stringer, Quod; Toby Lloyd, Shelter; Janet Askew, immediate past-President RTPI; Shaun Spiers, the CPRE)

The green belt is a topic that stirs passions around definitions of social need. It produces suspicion and awareness around the political and commercial agendas at stake in planning. It prompts questions round the idea of planning itself in 21st Century Britain.

And though all the experts made it clear that the purposes of the green belt were neither aesthetic nor spiritual, sitting round the public discourse is this sense of it being a ‘good thing’ beyond its utilitarian function of preventing sprawl.

Most of all, the debate is framed by an urgency around the housing crisis that threatens economic well-being, that impoverishes the social mix of cities, and ultimately pits generation against generation across a divide of older asset-rich housing ‘haves’, and the debt-ridden graduates of the younger generation.

“Is the green belt a luxury we can’t afford?“ produced such a high-quality set of responses that we’re covering it in more detail, in two parts. The first part addresses two very contrasting but original takes from Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of Campaign to Protect Rural England and Economist Paul Cheshire.

Introducing the event, Lewis Blackwell highlighted the almost weekly headlines where the green belt is “under negotiation or perhaps under attack.” On the other side of the green belt debate, Blackwell pointed out the academic reports which argue that as part of the housing crisis the green belt needs to be seen as part of the solution.

Blackwell also noted the audible silence from the London Mayoral candidates. In so far as it was mentioned at all, Labour's Sadiq Khan is now a strong supporter of the green belt: “It’s sacred apparently, not a position he held a few years ago.” Meanwhile Zac Goldsmith is for all things green, said Blackwell, but is also for solving the housing crisis and “not quite clear on how he is going to so that without involving the green belt.”

Amplifying the possibilities of the green belt

First speaker Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (and a key organisation in creating the green belt), presented a robust defence of the green belt.

Spiers challenged some of the conventional thinking around the green belt and the defensive posturing it often encourages, setting citizens against one another rather than sharing ideas to create solutions. He reframed the green belt along four different lines of thinking. 

1.The Green belt has great capital value and great amenity value.

The fact that the green belt has capital and amenity value is not among the purposes set out for it in planning law (see the five purposes here), but sometimes it is suggested by critics that it is simply inaccessible, mono-cultural farmland.

Spiers listed some impressive figures and features of the green belt showing how it generates social and environmental value, such as: the 30,000 km of rights of way in England; the 89,000 sites of special scientific interest; and the 19 percent of ancient woodland in England.

And where the green belt is of poor value, it’s not untouchable; it can be transformed. Spiers cited work done in places such as the Lea Valley Regional Park for instance.

“The question is not, ‘Can we afford the green belt?’ rather, ‘Can we afford not to have the green belt?’”

Spiers noted a report from the National Capital Committee (chaired by Professor Dieter Helm) who in defence of green belt, suggested a third alternative to either its current state with all its faults, or building housing on it – a much improved and enhanced belt. 

In an imaginative defence of the green belt the question for Spiers was not, “Can we afford the green belt?” but rather, “Can we afford not to have the green belt?”

(Download the report here)

2. The green belt benefits cities and could benefit cities more

Spiers argued that current analysis of urban spaces assumes the future will be like the recent past, the assumption seems to be that London will continue to grow, and we have no agency or structure in place to shape how it grows.

In effect, Spiers argued, we have delegated planning policy to a dozen or so house builders, who build what they want to build. The future doesn’t have to be like that.

He cited the relatively recent rebirth of UK cities – it was only in the late 1980s that cities started to grow and regenerate. This growth, he argued, was partly down to the fact that planning policy didn’t let sprawl happen, and partly because generating wealth in the cities was seen as socially and environmentally sustainable.

Spiers argued that it is the constraints of the Green belt, that prompted more imaginative solutions. We need to be open to thinking about planned new communities in London.

For example, citing Andrew Lainton’s blog (a planning and regeneration consultant) who proposes Barcelona-type densities in Thamesmead. In summary, we need to be more ambitious in our land use planning.

3. The State needs to build more houses

For 35 years in post-war Britain, 200,000 new houses a year were built and the State built more than half of them. “We have now delegated building houses to a few big firms with little interest to build houses on a similar scale,” said Spiers. The point being that having a green belt hasn’t prohibited building houses on a large scale.

In a way, the green belt is a distraction from what needs to be done, but there is a lot of money to be made from building in the green belt. The price of land is 40% of the cost of housing, whereas when Milton Keynes was built it was 1%.

Spiers also argued that powerful building interests were shaping the debate by paying think tanks to produce reports arguing for releasing more land – which he argued is not the solution.

"The price of land is 40% of the cost of housing, whereas when Milton Keynes was built it was 1%"

In a debate which is replete with persuasive figures in persuasive arguments, Spiers argued that there’s enough brownfield sites in England to build one million houses and the pool of brownfield sites grows all the time.

4. If we are serious about building a coalition we don’t need to create aggro

Ultimately knee-jerk and default responses pollute the atmosphere for debate, making creative solutions impossible.

We don’t need countryside wars, it’s unproductive, and Spiers doesn’t believe the CPRE are at fault – it has public support.  Yet he argued that the green belt is being eroded by stealth – 270,000 homes being planned for the green belt.

While the green belt is popular, the CPRE has a responsive approach and has supported redrawing green belt in special circumstances – but not just because developers want to get hold of land.

In conclusion, he argued that we need to end the ideological attack on planning and the green belt.

The economic landscape of the green belt

The angle taken by second speaker Paul Cheshire, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, was arranged with the numbers, language and logic of an economist.  Seeing maps, geography and boundaries as effects of market distribution, assets and the commercial impact of regulation created a radical change of perception. Space configured and designed by the flows and blockages of money. How particular social and cultural practices such as playing golf or ‘horseyculture’ are partly produced as a side-effect of the dry documentation of land regulation.

Cheshire qualified the event question – “ is the green belt a luxury for the few which the rest of us need to pay for?” While the green belt isn’t the only problem in the housing crisis it is an important part of the problem.

In a closely argued presentation Cheshire argued that for 60 years there has been the undersupply of land, because it’s based on forecasting ‘local housing need’ – an intellectually dumb concept because forecasting is inaccurate.  

‘Supply’ is an economic activity, determining the amount of a scarce resource made available for purchase, but it is price, argued Cheshire, that selects who gets what’s available. And price is not about need.

What’s more, a house isn’t just about shelter. Buying a house for example is also about buying local schools, neighbourhood, a size of house and garden – price determined by preferences and incomes, the latter the most significant driver.

As people get richer they try to consume more space. Richer people will live in bigger houses and Cheshire cited a fascinating measure that a 10% increase in incomes is associated with people trying to buy 20% more space.

Cheshire argued that the function of green belts is simply to stop urban expansion: “it’s not an amenity rich world.” He quoted Duncan Sands, the minister who introduced the idea of the green belt in 1955, who said, “even if neither green nor particularly attractive scenically, the function of the green belt is to stop further urban expansion.”

Unfortunately, continued Cheshire, what the green belt produces is ‘rationed space’ which has many unintended consequences. For example golf courses and keeping horses is grossly over-consuming land, because there is no competition for that land from urban uses.

“A 10% increase in incomes is associated with people trying to buy 20% more space”

This rationed space and lack of competition, said Cheshire, has effected the structure of wealth distribution in predictable ways, because as house prices have gone up it redistributes assets to the “housing haves”.

People therefore treat housing as an asset and this stops efficiency in the system in the sense that it stops people from living where there are jobs and where they are most productive.

And while he allowed that there is lots of green belt that is environmentally important and high in amenity, equally the biggest green belt usage is in intensive agriculture.

So for example, the London green belt stretches from the North Sea to Aylesbury, covering 1.4 times the surface of all our cities. And while there is lots of green belt land which is environmentally important, is high in amenity, the biggest single use of green belt land is for intensive agriculture.

The Cambridge green belt, a case study he explored, is 74% intensive agriculture, an environmentally damaging activity (a recent study noted the high run-off of chemicals and the energy usage).

In the example of a potential development near Cambridge he highlighted on a map what he believed was a slice of green belt that was in effect a kind of informal ‘adventure playground’ – exactly the kind of green belt he argued that we need. Nearby was a 100 hectares slice of land of intensive agriculture (also designated green belt) where he argued you could build houses.

In conclusion, Cheshire calculated that releasing 6% of London’s green belt would enable 50,000 houses a year to be built for the next 30 years. We need to consider more broadly the social value of land, a measure which would include the need for housing and to understand better the ways in which current designations of green belt is distorting the value and supply of housing. 

Read the second part, Four original takes on the green belt and housing crisis: Part Two

Beyond The Green Belt is a touring exhibition and talks programme made possible by the generous support and partnership of Pegasus Group and ACO Technologies.

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