Adam is a Senior Researcher for the Conservatives on the London Assembly. He writes in a personal capacity.
Britain’s shortage of housing is the dominant crisis of our times. No other issue is as likely to consume political debate over the next few decades, nor is there any single issue that poses as big a threat to the nation’s future prosperity. I have previously argued on this site that the over-arching objective of Conservative governments must be to achieve “full ownership”, but the question remains of how this can be achieved.
Oncurrent estimates, England needs 220,000 new homes every year and 3.3 million homes by 2030. This would mean more than doubling the current output. Why is it that, despite the best efforts of this and the last Government, housing supply never quite matches demand? The answer to that question is complex, and beyond the realms of a single article. What is certain is that our housing problems are not due to a shortage of land. Despite what is often reported, Britain is in no way a crowded island.
The National Ecosystem Assessment, the most comprehensive survey of Britain’s land usage, established that 10.6 per cent of England’s land is ‘urban’, but this categorisation is not clear cut. The same report highlighted that 54 per cent of ‘urban’ land is parks, 18 per cent gardens and 6.6 per cent rivers or canals. So all in all 78.6 of land classified as ‘urban’ is actually natural space, which leaves 21.4 per cent for ‘built’ land. In all, only 2.3 per cent of England’s total land can be classified as ‘built’, which includes housing, commercial properties, industrial estates, roads, railways and paths.
Government data indicates that 32 per cent of the ‘built’ land in cities is used for residential developments. This means a paltry 0.7 per cent of total land in England is used for housing. This tiny percentage of land houses approximately 43 million people in 18.3 million homes. To meet the demand for housing by 2030, we would only need to release 0.13 per cent of England’s land for development. Not exactly the ‘concrete jungle’ that is often portrayed by those who argue against what they term as ‘urban sprawl’.
A commonly heard argument against the releasing of more land is that we already have enough brownfield land to match housing demand. This is simply not true. In London, where the housing crisis is most acute, there is enough brownfield land for just 46 per cent of demand leading up to 2030. The North West is the best performing on this measure, with 63 per cent of demand being able to be met through brownfield developments. In total, England has enough brownfield land for one million homes. This is nowhere near enough.
This is a fact that many in the Conservative Party will not want to hear, but it is nonetheless an unavoidable one. Britain can only build the homes it needs if greenbelt land is released for development. This is obviously inflammatory to many conservatives, but there is simply no other way.
This fact need not fill conservatives with fear. Britain’s greenbelt land is not the rolling fields and verdant meadows that many envisage. Take London for instance, where over a fifth of the Capital’s land is greenbelt. Most of this land (59 per cent) is actually farmland, which means that 13 per cent of the Capital’s total land is reserved for agricultural purposes. This is probably not what most imagine, nor is it what London’s land should be used for giving its ongoing housing crisis. In all, half of London’s boroughs have more land categorised as greenbelt as they have reserved for housing.
In addition, about 90 per cent of the city’s greenbelt is inaccessible to the public and only 13 per cent can be categorised as truly ‘green’ or environmentally protected: i.e. ancient woodland, nature reserves and the like. Given so little of the land is given over to the promotion of the natural environment, and that London is typical of all major English cities in this regard, the label “greenbelt” is clearly misleading.
Given the lack of brownfield and mounting demand, Britain’s future housing targets can only be met by building on greenbelt. The sooner the Party and its supporters recognise this fact, the better. This does not mean that the natural environment should be ignored. Those areas of actual environmental importance should be re-designated as national parkland, with all the protections for natural beauty and wildlife that this confers.
Nor does it mean that the remaining greenbelt land should be reserved for tower blocks. New ‘garden suburbs’ should be developed that incorporate good utilisation of green space and attractive design to ensure these new developments incorporate beauty. It does, however, mean that 0.13 per cent of England’s land must be found for new developments, most of which will need to surround our cities in the greenbelt.
Britain desperately needs to get building. It cannot do this while greenbelt land suffocates our cities in a bureaucratic chokehold. Removing the greenbelt will ensure that housing supply will finally begin to match housing demand. There is simply no alternative.