We need to rethink the Green Belt

Intensive pig farming: both the sort of thing that happens in the Green Belt, and a metaphor for its effect on Londoners. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It will surprise no one to hear that the UK, particularly London and southern England, is experiencing a housing crisis – one that appears to be getting worse. According to the LSE’s Paul Cheshire, since the 1980s we have systematically under-built between 1.6m and 2.3m homes. House prices are now extremely high after a long period of growth, and they may continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

A new paper published today by the Adam Smith Institute reviews the evidence around England’s housing shortage, with particular focus on the Green Belt. It concludes that the Green Belt is restricting the supply of housing in a way that has a significant impact on prices – and doing so in a way that effectively redistributes wealth from poor to rich. To solve the housing crisis, we argue that we must scrap or, at a minimum, roll back the Green Belt.

Developable land, and hence the supply of housing, is constrained by the Green Belt. As a result, houses have become an investment good whose cost reflects expected future increases in demand, not just the cost of supplying a house at a given quality point. 

That raises the barriers to home ownership significantly for anyone who does not have money to invest, and reduces the quality and size of housing across the board. Prices rose by 350 per cent in real terms in the period from 1955 to 2002 period. Today, housing costs per square meter in England are double what they are in the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries on earth. 

In other words, the Green Belt is giving us smaller, more expensive homes whose cost is more akin to that of a risky investment good than a place to live. The biggest losers here are people on low incomes – though the general upward pressure on land prices means that businesses also face punishingly high rents in some cities.

The scale of the housing crisis is significant, but minimal reforms to ease it would barely affect the composition of England’s landscape at all. Ninety per cent of land in England remains undeveloped, and just 0.5 per cent would be required to fulfil this decade’s housing needs. Around London, we favour previous proposals to remove restrictions on land within a ten minute walk of existing railway stations to allow the construction of 1 million new homes. That would use up around 3.7 per cent of the capital’s Green Belt.

But these policies only defer the problem, and in fact the Green Belt as it is currently comprised is much less valuable by any objective metric than is commonly believed. More than a third of protected Green Belt land is intensively farmed agricultural land, which generates net environmental costs – in other words, it is worse than doing nothing with the land at all. This contrasts unfavourably with gardens and parks, both of which are relatively biodiverse and deliver net environmental benefits.

What’s more, because it drives up the price of inner city land, there is a trade-off between Green Belt green space, and urban green space like gardens and parks. This represents an enormous welfare loss. Each hectare of city park is estimated to be of £54,000 total benefit per year to residents, compared to a mere £889 per hectare for Green Belt land on the fringe of an urban area. The question should not be if we want green space, but where.

Houston, Texas, is often used by both supporters and opponents of planning liberalisation. The city is one of the least planned in the world, and is enormously sprawling and sparsely populated for its size. Commuting times in Houston are some of the highest in the United States, which is a major cost. But the donut-like nature of London’s existing commuter belt means that a more naturally sprawling capital may actually reduce commuter times here: commuters who currently live in towns far from the city would be able to live in new homes at its edge.

What’s more, in Houston, housing and living costs in general are extremely low. It’s arguable that because house prices were almost wholly a function of supply and demand that this is why Houston’s housing market escaped the house price collapse almost unscathed

Some will point out that the shortfall in house construction since the 1980s has to a significant extent been a consequence of almost no social housing being built. This is a fair point, but it misses the fact that social housing development on urban land faces exactly the same land costs as private construction. According to polling by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation almost nobody actually wants to live in social housing compared to owning their own home – but even if you want to ignore this inconvenient fact, you still must increase the supply of developable land by reforming the Green Belt and planning in general.

All public policy entails trade-offs of this sort, and both defenders and opponents of the Green Belt should accept that there will be winners and losers whatever the policy is. The relevant question is who wins and who loses. The overwhelming losers from the Green Belt appear to be city-dwellers on low incomes; the winners appear to be middle-income homeowners. Whether we ditch the Green Belt or gently tinker with it, it is hard to think of a more important policy reform to improving the lives of Engand’s worst off.

Sam Bowman is deputy director of the Adam Smith Institute.

 
 
 
 

Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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