Michael Thirkettle is chief executive of property consultancy McBains Cooper.
The recent declaration that the government wants to see 1m new homes built by 2020 raised hopes among those desperate to get on the housing ladder – and raised eyebrows among those in the construction industry. But even though this is a laudable ambition, it will be impossible to reach that number without a radical re-think of how – and where – we allow new homes to be built.
So the much anticipated housing and planning bill, published this week, included further relaxation of planning rules for building on brownfield sites. “Unlocking the potential of brownfield” is the current buzz phrase.
However, although the measures in the bill give automatic planning permission in principle on brownfield sites – to bring forward more land to build new homes quicker, while protecting the green belt – the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors calculates this will only enable 226,000 new homes to be built over the next four years. Furthermore, as the RICS point out, some sites will still take a long time to see any development at all.
Admittedly, some of these delays can be down to “land-banking”, in which large developers sit on brownfield land because they hope its value will increase. But not all blame can be laid at developers’ doors. Often there is a significant cost associated with decontaminating former industrial land, while some of the earmarked brownfield sites are in bleak areas where people may not want to live, such as next to busy, dangerous roads. Little wonder there is a lack of appetite to build.
Perhaps more pertinently, there is not enough brownfield to meet development needs anyway. Reports show that around one million new homes are required around London and the south east; there is enough brownfield capacity to meet just a fifth of this number.
Even if, as the Campaign to Protection of Rural England calculates, there is enough brownfield to deliver 1m homes, experts like Sir Michael Lyons, who led a major commission into housebuilding, say there will still be a deficit of 2m homes by 2020 if current building trends continue.
That’s why we need to be far bolder and open up more of the green belt for development. Building on the green belt is still seen by many as sacrilege – but the very term is an emotionally-charged one which is often used in a cavalier fashion.
Much of the green belt nowhere near resembles a bucolic image of England’s green and pleasant land. In many cases, it is scrubland, former brownfield sites, or vacant land with little value. In the capital, according to a report by London First, around 40 per cent of designated green belt includes airfields, water treatment works and old hospitals.
Contrary to popular belief, built-up areas comprise less than 10 per cent of England and Wales. And, as Paul Cheshire of the LSE points out, half of this area comprises gardens with actual houses only covering around one per cent of this area: meanwhile the green belt covers 13 per cent.
Professor Cheshire says intelligently-selected green spaces around cities could still be maintained. A 1km ring inside the M25 would include enough land to meet London’s housing needs for a generation – and would represent just 0.1 per cent of England’s surface.
The green belt has not halted development; it has just pushed it out into rural areas not defined as green belt, meaning longer commutes for people and more environmental damage.
One more advantage of the green belt is that good transport links are already in place. According to the surveyors Countrywide, within walking distance of 80 railway stations in greenbelt on the edge of English cities there is enough unused land to provide nearly 500,000 new homes. In short, it would mean a sustainable solution to the addressing the problem of housing supply, without a cost to the environment.
Successive governments, have unsurprisingly, shied away from introducing reforms which would allow more development of the green belt, seeing it as political suicide. But with the next general election almost five years away, the opportunity is there for some brave decisions that will truly help address the housing crisis. Green space could still be protected in other ways: for example, the government could set a limit on development by only allowing construction within a restricted radius of transport hubs.
The question remains whether policymakers are bold enough to give the green light to developing more of the green belt, or whether we’ll continue to be stuck at red – making this latest bill just one more missed opportunity to address the housing crisis.
Michael Thirkettle is chief executive of McBains Cooper, an international construction and property consultancy.