Delivering fair access to housing is about so much more than just building more homes, writes Alice Roberts
CPRE London supports house building. But just building new homes will not solve the housing crisis. And building in the green belt is the worst possible option for London: it means losing countryside; creating high-carbon, car-dependent, unhealthy sprawl; it means inner-city regeneration opportunities are missed; and we fail to tackle the housing crisis.
Green belt is land around cities which is protected from development to halt urban sprawl and incentivise regeneration of already built-up areas.
UK developers and politicians, however, say the green belt ‘constraint’ is hampering efforts to tackle the housing crisis. They claim the only way to tackle the crisis is to build new homes. And that there isn’t enough land to build these within our towns and cities. But these claims do not hold up to scrutiny.
To start with, this defines the crisis, wrongly, as being exclusively about the quantity of homes available. But (and leaving aside the fact we have 1.5 million more dwellings than households: ONS/census data), the crisis is actually about the cripplingly high cost of buying or renting a home and the short supply of social housing – very different to ‘not enough homes’.
Dig a little deeper and you get the ‘supply and demand’ argument: ‘increasing housing supply will bring prices down’. But this logic doesn’t work if demand stays high. And in any event, housing markets are much more complex. Supply doesn’t tackle tenure or distribution issues. Housing markets are usually highly regulated for this reason.
And, manifestly, the ‘build more homes’ approach has failed. The crisis has now reached epic proportions with 100 councils attending an emergency summit in November 2023 as they face bankruptcy over soaring demand for temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, spiralling rents and mortgage payments eat up wages, leaving many in inescapable poverty.
Should we end the ‘Right to Buy’ in England, like Scotland did in 2016 and Wales in 2019?
Relying on private housebuilding to deliver a proportion of affordable homes isn’t working. And when built on green belt, it’s hopeless: new infrastructure is needed for power, water and transport so there’s no money left for affordable housing. ‘New towns’ have suffered the same problem.
Leaving aside affordability issues, what about claims that we don’t have enough land to build new homes?
Half a million homes already have planning permission but haven’t been built. Councils have also allocated many more sites for housing development than can ever be built out in the next twenty years. And CPRE research shows there’s space for at least 1.2 million homes on previously developed land. Land supply is very clearly not the problem.
Allocating more and more land just means developers have a choice of sites. They continue to drip feed the market, openly stating they prioritise margin over volume.
What about the claim that much of the green belt is worthless ‘grey belt’?
Green belt is often portrayed as unattractive ‘scrub land’, an argument used to say it is worthless and should be developed. But national planning policy states: “Once green belts have been defined, local planning authorities should plan positively to enhance their beneficial use.” And green belt is increasingly needed to plant forests, help manage rainfall, moderate the urban heat island effect, provide habitat to address species decline, grow food locally to cities, and provide space for recreation and sport on the urban fringe.
The reality is, talking about building on green belt as a means to solving the housing crisis is a red herring, a distraction.
So, if just building more homes, particularly on green belt, won’t solve the crisis, what will?
Start with the real causes of the crisis: the selling-off of social housing under ‘Right to Buy’; the failure to replace social housing; the fuelling of house price rises with cheap credit, quantitative easing and ‘Help to Buy’ schemes; the failure to regulate the private rented sector.
Should we end the ‘Right to Buy’ in England, like Scotland did in 2016 and Wales in 2019? The Chartered Institute of Housing has called the policy a strategic failure which has led to the loss of over 300,000 council homes in London with only a small proportion replaced.
Should we introduce rent caps? Should we stop fuelling house prices by subsidising house-buying with ‘Help to Buy’ schemes? Should councils have the means to build new social housing? Should we actually ‘level up’ between the north and south of the country to take the heat out of house prices in the south? Should we take action to bring empty homes into use? Should we reform the current land value capture mechanisms (S106 and CIL)?
Probably some of these might actually help. But building on green belt will not.
In the meantime, we’re already losing green belt, we’re already losing countryside, we’re already creating urban sprawl, but literally nothing is being done to solve the housing crisis.
Alice Roberts is Head of Green Space Campaigns at CPRE London