Right and wrong, left and right, for and against. The very structure of our language leads us to think there are two sides to every story. In fact, on the big policy issues, there may be one or more other options. Obviously, there’s always the messy compromise, but beyond that there may be a genuine third way (as opposed to the fake third way, as made infamous by you-know-who).
Consider the example of planning policy. On one side of the barricades, there are those opposed to new development – perhaps not in general, but certainly when it comes to any specific attempt to build much-needed new housing.
Lined up against them is the pro-development lobby who want to see the existing restrictions on new-build swept away. Looking on a map the biggest such restriction is the Green Belt – which the radicals want to get rid of. Their arguments are neatly encapsulated in a piece for City AM by Ben Southwood, who makes a number of interesting points:
“According to LSE professor Paul Cheshire, new build houses are about 40 per cent bigger in the Netherlands and 38 per cent bigger in Germany than they are in England. And yet housing goes for 45 per cent less per square metre in the Netherlands and, in Germany, prices did not rise throughout the entire 1971 to 2002 period”
As it happens, German property prices were also flat for the first decade of the current century – which is somewhat inconvenient for the build-build-build lobby, because Germany was one of the few countries not to have a building boom during this period.
Of course, we still need to improve the supply, affordability and quality of new housing. The question is whether loosening the Green Belt is going to achieve that.
It’s worth noting that the insanity of the UK property market starts at centre of London and ripples outward:
“In 2005, planning difficulties added an extra 8.37 per cent to rents in the West End and 4.31 per cent in the City, compared to 3.31 per cent in Frankfurt, 3.75 per cent in central Paris, 1.92 per cent in Amsterdam and 0.84 per cent in Brussels.”
Obviously, the Green Belt doesn’t cover inner London. Various other planning constraints do apply, but sorting these out will require a more complex solution than a deregulatory big bang. In some respects, making room for development in our capital may require more not less intervention – for instance, in assembling the necessary land packages and delivering higher standards of community-friendly design.
It might also help if our economy wasn’t so focused on a single urban centre, but was more like that of France or Germany, with a number of major cities challenging the capital for incomers and investment. In this respect, the progress made by the current Government is revitalising our other cities may be more important that any change to the planning system.
Also, far from solving our planning problems, scrapping the Green Belt could make them worse. Consider, for instance, the problem of ‘leap-frog development’:
“…where places just outside the protected area are built on instead of more desirable and valuable locations nearer the city. Paradoxically, this uses up more land, since more travel infrastructure must be built to get commuters to their jobs. And commuting imposes mental costs on commuters, as well as economic costs and extra pollution.”
The trouble is that London is big and the Green Belt is even bigger. Scrapping the latter might mean more infill development within the boundaries of Greater London, but it would also mean more development across the South-East – with developers inevitably homing-in on the most attractive locations. Ben Southwood is quite right to suggest that this would allow very large numbers of new houses to be built – but it wouldn’t solve the commuter problem. In fact, it would mean tens of thousands of new commuters squeezing onto an already overloaded rail network.
There are no easy solutions here. We either need to enable more people to live within central London, concentrate development in new towns supported by new infrastructure or, as mentioned above, get behind the job-creating efforts of areas of the country where there’s still room to live.
In short, on this – like most other issues – there are three, not two, fundamental options: to do nothing; to do something that won’t work; or to do something that will.