Again the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, is marching towards the sound of gunfire. Last year he made the moral case for GM crops. In an interview(£) for The Times he says that developers should sometimes be able to chop down trees if they plant a massive number elsewhere in return. The approach of a politician embracing a controversial argument and seeking to take public opinion with him is refreshing. It treats voters with respect – much better than quietly pursuing a policy and hoping they won’t notice.
Mr Paterson wants “to create a market in which land would be identified by wildlife groups for improvement and developers would fund the work.” In some exceptional cases Mr Paterson believes that the loss of “ancient woodland” – trees planted before 1600 – should be contemplated.
“In the longer term, the more you can move towards a mandatory [system] the more you get a market. You do want people to come forward with offsettable sites, that’s the key thing. You want a bank of sites [with groups saying] ‘come and improve our woodland’.
He suggested that the rules of the offsetting scheme could follow the example set by the construction of the M6 toll road around Birmingham. “I think it was 10,000 mature trees [lost] and they planted a million young ones. Now people will say that’s no good for our generation but over the long term that is an enormous increase in the number of trees. That is a practical example of a high amount of planting following a tragic loss of some wonderful trees.”
He added: “The point about offsetting is it will deliver a better environment over the long term.”
The report adds that “the Commons Environmental Audit Committee has warned that the system is too simplistic and could become a licence to pour concrete on the countryside.” But why should the new homes be made of concrete? Why not have beautiful new homes of traditional design using materials sympathetic to local area? The planners have managed to inflict a twin disaster – a severely restricted housing supply while ensuring that any new building that is allowed is as ugly as possible.
Of course, the choice between new homes and preserving ancient woodland could and should be avoided by building elsewhere. There is a vast amount of state owned land. The Ministry of Defence’s total land holdings is equivalent to the size of Surrey. Selling off a big chunk of this for housing could also assist in reducing the National Debt.
The logic of Mr Paterson’s argument should extend to the Green Belt. There should also be a pragmatic approach of allowing building on an acre of scuzzy greenbelt if there is “biodiversity offsetting” with several more acres of unattractive or damaged land being restored to ecological health.
Mr Paterson’s comments coincide with a warning by his fellow cabinet minister, Vince Cable, that house price rises are “unsustainable.” But if the planning system constrains the supply then house prices will continue to rise sharply ahead of general inflation. The point is not that it is unsustainable but that it should not be sustained. It is a political choice whether or not to sustain it.
There is some welcome news that, despite rising prices, the number of first time buyers increased by 22 per cent in 2013. But distortions still make the cost artificially high. The market should be allowed to function so that far more can afford home ownership.