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.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.