Britain is not an overcrowded island, but the green belt falsely inhibits house-building. It’s time to dismantle it, says Jules Lubbock
The Housing Crisis
Winter. A street in east London. White vans are parked, workers sleeping inside, engines running all night to keep themselves warm. They can’t afford to live in the city.
The housing crisis was Jeremy Corbyn’s very first question at his first prime minister’s questions, raised on behalf of Marie, one of thousands who had emailed him on the issue.
House prices have rocketed, sometimes tenfold in 20 years. Only the rich can afford to buy in London, whether city centre or suburbs. For the first time since the war the proportion of homeowners has fallen – from 70 per cent to 64 per cent. Private-sector rents are rising. People without the bank of mum and dad have to move out, not to suburbs but to exurbs and beyond. Towns with fast transport to London, such as Cambridge or even Colchester, are now unaffordable; people have to move to Ely or further afield. For the young, Thatcher’s 1975 vision of a home-owning democracy is a sick joke.
‘Much more needs to be done,’ agreed the prime minister: piecemeal planning reform, brownfield sites and so on. From Corbyn to UKIP, there is consensus. Each has similar solutions, from Corbyn’s commitment to more council housing to the Tories’ ragbag of incentives. That consensus extends to the shibboleth of the green belt. Yet no politician explains the cause of the crisis. If you don’t acknowledge – or don’t know – the cause of a problem, you can’t find a solution. It’s like denying that smoking causes cancer, and handing out cough sweets instead.
That cause is the green belt – shorthand for the planning system introduced by Labour’s 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, the foundation of the law controlling land use. It nationalised the owner’s right to develop. Development is forbidden without consent from the local authority. It also created green belts. What was the point? To preserve the ‘countryside’ from the relentless ‘sprawl’ of suburban housebuilding in the interwar years, when more houses were built than at any time. God made the country and man made the town. That simple. Other aims included self-sufficiency in food; belief in the scientific planning of everything, from the economy to families and kitchens; bringing manufacturing industry to regions hit by the Great Depression, resulting in beautiful white elephants such as Brynmawr; and a general view among the policy-making elite that the gentleman in Whitehall really does know best. That elite included architects such as William Holford and Clough Williams Ellis and their lay spokesmen in the architectural press, including John ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough’ Betjeman.
Urban containment was based on predictions that Britain’s population would not exceed 45 million
Unfortunately there was a fundamental flaw. Urban containment was based on the ‘scientific’ predictions of demographers who were adamant that Britain’s population would not exceed its 1939 peak of 45 million. Some even predicted a drop to 10 million by 2015. It seemed that the circle could be easily squared: inner-city slums could be demolished and suburbanised at low density with lovely parks and gardens; the ‘excess’ working class could be ‘decanted’ to overspill garden cities without losing much countryside. In the welfare state everything would be for the best in that best of all possible worlds.
In fact the population has risen by 50 per cent, to 65 million. The south of England has boomed, as it has done since 1920. Britain is not an overcrowded little island, there is plenty of land for homes, but supply has been constricted by green-belt planning. The result is that house prices have risen much faster than both earnings and inflation. Nothing more mysterious than supply and demand. Every serious politician understands, particularly since Kate Barker’s 2004 Review of Housing Supply, commissioned by Gordon Brown, the only senior politician to fully grasp the problem.
Why the consensus?
Our planning system may be a pain for housebuilders and for homeowners who want to prune their trees, but an unintended consequence has been to create a large and powerful class of winners, jokingly nicknamed nimbys, who have benefited enormously. Those who bought homes in unrestricted, though not entirely unplanned, suburbs before the war, costing as little as £400 (say £25,000 today), with green fields at the bottom of their gardens, expected to lose their views when the next street was built. The green belt saved those views and hugely increased the value of their property. They gradually learned to play the process of objection and appeal to halt unwelcome schemes. Councillors who defy their constituents get kicked out. Planning created a nationwide cartel, more powerful than trade unions or companies, the more so for being amorphous and ubiquitous.
Current remedies amount to tinkering. Theoretically maybe 1.5 million homes can be built on brownfield sites, but since 1998 that policy has failed to deliver. It remains at the mercy of nimbyism. So does social housing, as admirably illustrated by HBO’s new mini‑series Show Me a Hero, set in the New York suburb of Yonkers.
The green belt planning system must be dismantled and replaced with the bylaw system it superseded, which produced affordable housing in abundance.
Easier said than done. That’s why Kate Barker has recently been shorter on solutions than analysis. There would be an outcry from the home-owning majority were the artificial shortage of land to be unblocked and the market flooded with truly affordable homes. Existing house prices would plummet and all mortgage holders would find themselves in negative equity. Housebuilders’ land banks would be worthless so they would go bankrupt.
Catch 22? Not quite. First, governments have frequently acted against over-mighty subjects, such as agricultural landlords in the 19th century or trade unions and commercial monopolies more recently. Second, because there is an (albeit unspoken) political consensus that ‘planning is the problem’, a cross-party majority could override the nimbys in favour of the disenfranchised. Third, Adam Smith himself acknowledged the disastrous consequences of introducing free trade at a stroke; protectionism must be dismantled gradually. Finally, the fourth estate should hammer home the case against green belt planning. Something like the Anti‑Corn Law League is needed to change public opinion.
Jules Lubbock is an emeritus professor at the University of Essex and an expert on architecture and urbanism