Who’s been a naughty anti-housing pressure group, then? The Daily Telegraph news desk, that’s who.
I know, right? Plot twist.
Today, CPRE London – a group associated with, but independent of, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England – has put out a report which argues that (I paraphrase) the ENTIRE COUNTRYSIDE will soon be LITERALLY BURIED UNDER CONCRETE:
Drawing on local evidence provided by CPRE branches in Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, London and Surrey, the report demonstrates that the London Green Belt is, arguably, under greater threat than ever. There are now plans for 203 sites within the London Green Belt including proposals for 123,528 homes.
The word “arguably” is doing a lot of work in that paragraph.
To get to that figure, CPRE London and its partner in crime, London Green Belt Council, have used “local plans” – documents councils are required to compile outlining their plans for their local built environment. Collect all the local plans together, add up the number of houses proposed for the green belt, and, bingo, you’ve got some TERRIFYING BIG NUMBERS about TOWER BLOCKS ON THE GREEN BELT.
I have two big problems with this. The first is that the methodology is iffy. These numbers have been collated by a lot of local CPRE branches, without being independently verified. They also relate to bits of paper, rather than any actual building work.
So these are not real homes, nor even a comprehensive guide to plans for them. We don’t know how many homes will actually be build on London’s green belt over the next few years – but we know it is vanishingly unlikely to be precisely 123,528.
The second problem with this report is that, while 123,528 sounds like a big number, it isn’t, really. It’s about as many homes as Britain currently builds in a year, and under half the number we should be building to meet demand. Across the entire south east of England, over god knows what time period, it really isn’t that many.
(I have a third problem with this report too: to whit, that if we’re ever going to get out of this mess, I think we bloody well should be building on the green belt. But this one’s a matter of opinion, and I can hardly expect any part of the CPRE to agree with me, so hey.)
So – the CPRE London’s report is, if not exactly wrong, then not exactly right, either. Its errors, however, as of nothing compared to those introduced in the Telegraph’s write up of it:
A report to be published this week from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has uncovered blueprints for more than 123,000 new homes on 203 sites in the London Green Belt.
The report found in Hertfordshire 84,000 hectares (207,000 acres) are under threat, as well as 121,000 hectares (300,000 acres) in Surrey and 97,000 hectares (240,000 acres) in Essex.
Two clunkers jump out from this. The first is that the report comes not from the CPRE, but from CPRE London. A spokesman for the former, who gave the impression he’d been fielding a lot of these calls, was at pains to point out that the two bodies are different.
The second, bigger error is that those hectares “under threat” are actually just the total hectares included in the green belt in each county.
The Telegraph reporter has misread the CPRE report, and implied that every single square inch of green belt in the Home Counties is under threat from the bulldozers. Take that literally, and it implies that the population of Surrey is to increase by some 800 per cent:
How genuine is the 'threat' to the countryside identified by CPRE? Some number-crunching based on their figures. pic.twitter.com/LT3tZmopH4
— Duncan Stott (@DuncanStott) September 12, 2016
While we’re at it, the Telegraph report also includes a chart showing how proposed housing-on-green-belt increases between March 2015 and March 2016. Which doesn’t reflect any actually increase in housing, but only the increase in the number of local plans available.
My favourite part about this Telegraph story is that it includes a paragraph explaining why it’s wrong...
A Communities and Local Government Department spokesmen said: “These claims are totally misleading as they are based purely on projections in Local Plans, including Plans not yet adopted.”
...and yet, there it sits, contented in its wrongess.
I very much doubt this is an act of malice on the Telegraph reporter’s part. More likely, he wrote the report quickly, didn’t pay quite enough attention, and promptly quintupled the population of Essex.
But it nonetheless highlights one of the biggest reasons it’s so difficult to sort out the housing crisis. The public, especially the home-owning share of it, is deeply paranoid that we are on the verge of concreting the entirety of southern England; newspapers who depend on their business collude in these delusions.
And the resulting public pressure makes it all but impossible to make even minor changes to the green belt – even if our stubborn refusal to do so simply guarantees ever more agonising housing costs.
It’s a great result if you work at the CPRE, or even at CPRE London. If you’re young or poor and looking for secure accommodation? Not so much.
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.