Over the last two days, a depressingly high number of newspapers have published a story about the latest research (yes, research) from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). Its latest paper purports to show that England's green belt us under threat as never before – that...
....275,000 homes planned for England's Green Belt, an increase of 50,000 on last year and nearly 200,000 more than when the Government introduced its planning reforms back in March 2012.
Here's a tweet from Shaun Spiers, the chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, cheerily highlighting the Telegraph’s report on this research:
— Shaun Spiers (@ShaunSpiers1) April 25, 2016
Note the fifth word there. "Undeniable". You're probably familiar with it - it's an adjective, meaning "unable to be denied or disputed". Undeniable. Got that?
Anyway, here I go, proving that Spiers is (undeniably) wrong: he's talking rubbish. You can tell that the threat is not undeniable, and the way you can tell is that here I am, denying it.
There is no threat to the green belt, on anything like this scale. I, for one, would weep few tears if there were plans to build 275,000 homes on the Green Belt land – but there aren't. As things stand, in the battle to end Britain's housing crisis, Spiers' CPRE is winning, while my Build More Bloody Houses faction is getting utterly trounced. This story is total bilge.
But let's assume for the moment that the CPRE hasn't just picked a random number out of the air, and look at where it actually got its numbers. Here’s what its paper says:
CPRE asked its county branches across England to tell us about any proposals in adopted or advanced local plans to release land from the Green Belt for housing development and other purposes.
(Local Plans are documents, in which councils explain how they're planning to change their built environment over the next few years.)
There are, clever people tell me, three problems with this approach. The first is that this seems to be a crowd-sourcing exercise in which local CPRE branches collected the figures and then chucked them into a central pot. It's not clear any independent audit of these numbers has taken place, so we can’t know how reliable they are. That’s a relatively minor problem.
The second, less minor problem, is that the CPRE seems to be listing any council that doesn’t yet a local plan as having no plans to build on its green belt. But local plans are still being written – there are fewer plan-free councils now than there were in 2012 or 2013.
As a result, what looks like a growing threat to the green belt...
....is in fact a growing tide of paper work.
That leads us to the last problem. These are just numbers on a council document, not spades in the ground – and new buildings still need individual planning permission. As I noted last week in my story on Birmingham – which actually is planning to build on its green belt – the council plans are coming under sustained attack from both local people and Westminster politicians. Inclusion in a local plan is no guarantee that anything will actually get built.
(Thanks to clever person Pete Jeffrys, of Shelter, for explaining all this.)
To be fair, the number of homes granted permission in the green belt has increased. Here's the paragraph of the CPRE research which contains the relevant figures:
Research by consultancy Glenigan in June 2015 for BBC Radio 4's File on 4 also found a sharp increase in the number of houses securing full planning approval in the Green Belt. In 2009/10, 2,258 homes were approved. By 2014/2015, it had risen to 11,977. This is a fivefold increase in five years.
And, to be fair, a five-fold increase is quite a big jump.
But let's put those numbers in perspective. Britain builds around 130,000 homes every year; it needs to build around 250,000. Under 12,000 homes? That's a rounding error.
There is not an undeniable threat to the green belt. There is barely a threat at all. Even as homelessness rises and housing costs shoot up into the sky, the ugly scrublands and chemically-contaminated potato farms of England remain untouchable.
The CPRE is getting what it wants, and then whining about it anyway. Nothing like a sore winner, is there?
Jonn Elledge edits CityMetric and tweets too much.