Shire Tories and greens are denying Brits homes

The claim that the Lib-Cons are planning to concrete over large parts of Britain’s green land is wrong - unfortunately.

James Heartfield

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Topics Politics

The Daily Telegraph, with the backing of the National Trust, Friends of the Earth and the Woodlands Trust, has launched a campaign called Hands Off Our Land in a bid to save the Green Belt.

The campaign claims that the government’s Draft National Planning Policy Framework will lead to the loss of much of Britain’s countryside as planning regulations are replaced by a presumption in favour of development. Dame Fiona Reynolds, director of the National Trust, said that huge swathes of green space are under threat. ‘For many people, it is the places on their doorstep that are threatened – the ordinary yet special places that people really value’, she said. ‘We fear that the proposals are a green light to develop these.’

Hands Off Our Land, though, has nothing to say about Britain’s shortfall in new homes. For over 20 years house-building has been falling short of the numbers that are needed. Today, fewer homes are being built than at any time since the Second World War.

The shortfall in houses built means that homes are too expensive for most people. House prices climbed sharply throughout the boom years, as more mortgages chased fewer new homes, pricing many first-time buyers out of the market. Though prices fell during 2008 and 2009 when credit dried up, they are still above the 2005 figure – because the underlying cause of the rise was the shortage of new homes as well as the availability of credit.

Fewer and fewer Britons can afford to buy homes. In contrast, the number of households renting privately has risen by one million since 2005. Rents are rising, too, meaning that many more people are flat-sharing. Overcrowding is getting worse as more homes are subdivided.

The perilously low number of homes being built (just over 100,000 per year even though at least 232,000 new homes need to be built each year in England) is not enough to replace Britain’s ageing housing stock. Moreover, it is only because decrepit homes are not being demolished that Britain is not facing an even more severe shortage than we are currently seeing. Worse still, the shortfall has been building up ever since 1995.

The scare stories about Britain’s green land being in danger of getting concreted over are just that – scare stories. Only one tenth of Britain is developed and even this small part of the land includes all our parks and gardens. Conservationists like the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) have been warning of the ‘tsunami of concrete’ that supposedly threatens the countryside for years now, but no such development has taken place.

Five years ago, the New Labour government promised to build new ‘eco-towns’ to meet the housing shortage and it promised to release government-owned land to build these towns on. The CPRE and Friends of the Earth raised a great campaign against the supposed threat posed to the countryside. So how many eco-towns were built? None.

Meanwhile, Britain’s protected Green Belt is expanding all the time. Currently it accounts for 12.6 per cent of the land area of England. ‘Special areas of conservation’, ‘sites of special scientific interest’ and ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’ account for a further 29.8 per cent (see More Homes and Better Places, published by the Building and Social Housing Foundation in September 2011). New national parks are also being created, the latest being the South Downs that stretches from Eastbourne to Winchester. The marking out of these restricted areas prevents any development of any scale from taking place.

These are only some of the designations conceived by the state since the last war in order to control development. Once conservation areas, world heritage sites, village greens, special protection areas, protected-view corridors, strategic gaps, landscape characterisation studies and so on are added into the mix, it is amazing that we are able even to get out of our front doors. These designations are not made at the request of the public, but by unaccountable and non-representative quangos and third-sector bodies.

The Telegraph complains that the chancellor of the exchequer has made the default answer to development plans ‘yes’. In truth, the default answer has for decades been ‘no’. Sadly, the Draft National Policy Framework is hedged around with so many qualifications that the chancellor’s ‘default answer’ now is ‘yes, but no’.

Alongside the promise to open up planning, the Draft gives local authorities more power to say ‘no’ especially where, as the Draft says, ‘the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits’. Local authorities and their helpers in the ‘ministries for the protection of middle-class amenities’ are already busy assembling the evidence base they need to demonstrate to the government’s inspectors how new development will have all sorts of adverse impacts on a host of threatened species, vistas and twee villages.

The record shows that most local authorities resist new development, and will take every opportunity and find any excuse to block it. Development puts greater demands on public authorities in the short term, and so they prefer to do without it. They see change as disorder. Established homeowners and shire Tories have clout, but householders-to-be have none.

Even councils that do want to build more homes are prevented from doing so by the shire councils. Many metropolitan councils are keen to build more homes because they want the development and council-tax revenues that come with this. Many, however, are hard-up against their administrative boundaries and rely upon the adjoining shire councils to agree to accommodate their growing populations.

This is a major problem afflicting economically buoyant towns and cities across the greater south-east: towns and cities such as St Albans, Newmarket, Cambridge, Stevenage, Reading, Oxford, Swindon and Bristol. There isn’t enough previously developed land in these towns to re-develop as housing, even if people would be content to live on an old factory site. The only other alternative is to build upwards, but most people don’t want to live in flats. Flats also tend to be very expensive to build and they come with punitively high service charges that make them unattractive to those on average incomes.

The Hands off Our Land campaign is typical of the alliance of shire Tories and greens that has ganged up every time the merest hint is made that new homes might be built. When they say ‘our land’ they lay claim on the basis of aristocratic privilege, and out of a determination that the country shall be preserved for the few. The tragedy is that the alliance against change is so much greater than the one to build the homes we need.

Successive housing ministers have all found the truth in their ministerial briefs – that too few houses are being built, and that Britain is storing up a monumental disaster for the coming generation. Time and again, housing ministers have thought about tackling the problem. But on every occasion their plans have been shot down, watered down, and then turned into the opposite: a case for more restrictions on growth.

James Heartfield is author of Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) His most recent book The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909 is published by Hurst and Columbia University Press in October.

James is also a co-founder of Audacity, which has launched the 250 New Towns Club, a group that maps locations in Britain that could accommodate a new, twenty-first century town.

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