We don’t need to destroy the Green Belt to solve the housing crisis

I have a letter on the Green Belt in the Times, a response to a piece by Tim Montgomerie criticising the Conservatives for their ‘appeasement of the nimby vote. A near-theological protection of green belt land explains why millions of young people can’t afford to buy a home. Planning restrictions remain the most impoverishing form of red tape in British public life.’

I admire Tim Montgomerie’s concern for people in need – he wrote a passionate article earlier this year about the humanitarian imperative to rescue economic migrants trying to get to Europe. But on UK housing, I wish he would move beyond the glib, unevidenced assumption that releasing more greenfield land must result in more housing. I wish, too, that he would try harder to understand why people – reasonable people – might object to new housing, and what might need to change to persuade them to accept it. Simply condemning them achieves nothing.

Here is the full version of my letter (the printed version is slightly shortened).

It is depressing that Tim Montgomerie peddles the line that we need to build on the Green Belt to resolve the housing crisis (It’s a myth that Tory modernisers won the day, May 14).

CPRE has established that there is enough suitable brownfield land for at least a million new homes, much of it in London and the South East. No one has contested these figures. The problem is not land, it is getting the houses built.

The major house builders have plenty of land with planning permission, but they dribble out supply. The small builders who once built two-thirds of private sector homes, now build less than a third and their market share is falling. And the state, which built over half the houses when we comfortably built over 200,000 homes every year, now builds very few. It spends on housing benefit, much of which goes to buy-to-let landlords, what it used to spend on building homes.

Meanwhile, for all the protestation of politicians that the Green Belt is safe, it is being it is being steadily eroded across England while brownfield sites go to waste. Tim Montgomerie should stop taking his lines from the developer-funded, anti-planning think-tanks. We need more houses, and some of them will inevitably go on greenfield sites. But we need to build with care. Simply dismissing those who care about the countryside as Nimbys is playground politics.

The new government ministers: reasons to be cheerful

In my last blog I stressed that Ministers are at least as important as manifesto pledges. So what should we make of the Ministers appointed by David Cameron this week? I think those who care about the countryside should be pretty pleased.

One of David Cameron’s strengths as prime minister is that he has tried to resist the temptation to reshuffle ministers just as they are mastering their briefs. Nevertheless, the last Parliament saw three environment secretaries (and a total change in junior ministers), three transport secretaries and four housing ministers. So it is good to see some consistency in the departments most closely relevant to CPRE’s work.

The new CLG (Department of Communities and Local Government) secretary of state, Greg Clark, introduced the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in the early years of the Coalition. Continue reading ‘The new government ministers: reasons to be cheerful’

The Conservative government and the countryside

What does a Conservative government mean for CPRE’s priorities? There were certainly some welcome promises in the manifesto, which reaffirmed the aim of ‘being the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than that in which we found it’, and declared boldly: ‘We will protect your countryside, Green Belt and urban environment.’ I have no doubt that David Cameron cares about the countryside. This comes across in his Q&A with CPRE’s President, Andrew Motion, where he describes himself as ‘a country boy at heart’. And I recall a fine impromptu speech he gave last summer at Burford School on the history and future of rural England – I doubt any of the other party leaders (a moving feast, I know) who could have spoken with such knowledge and passion. The trouble, of course, is that as Prime Minister David Cameron has too often forgotten the countryside and left others do their worst. On the National Planning Policy Framework, for instance, he let the Chancellor call the shots. The experience of the last government suggests that manifesto promises are a poor guide to how things will pan out in reality. Continue reading ‘The Conservative government and the countryside’

FT letter: who is going to build the houses we need?

I love the Financial Times. It is a serious paper with some very good columnists. But on housing, the FT has bought wholesale the line of the developer-funded, anti-planning think-tanks that the way to increase output is to weaken the planning system and, in particular, the Green Belt. An FT leading article on Tuesday skilfully compressed almost every anti-planning misconception in two columns. My response is in today’s paper, and reproduced below. I am grateful to the paper for publishing it. In the coming weeks I intend to write a few blogs analysing in more detail some of the anti-conservation arguments that are becoming increasingly influential with ‘opinion formers’, if not (I am pleased to say) with the electorate.

Continue reading ‘FT letter: who is going to build the houses we need?’

Energy efficiency: how the countryside is losing out

Today CPRE publishes a new report, Warm and Green, about the need to improve the efficiency of buildings in rural England – and the potential consequences if we continue to focus on the supply energy while doing too little to limit demand. Here is my article about the report, from the forthcoming issue of the Countryman.

Houses in the country tend to be older than those in towns and more expensive to heat. But despite the fact that they face higher than average energy costs, rural communities get little of the money available for energy efficiency. Rural areas are home to almost a fifth of England’s population, but receive less than 1p for every pound the Government invests in energy efficiency.

The result is too many people who cannot afford to heat their homes adequately. But there are also serious environmental consequences. If Britain is to meet the Climate Change Act’s targets for carbon reduction, which all the main parties support, we must use much less energy. It will not be enough to make urban houses more efficient if those in the countryside continue to leach heat.

A new report from CPRE, Warm and Green, shows how we can do better. Continue reading ‘Energy efficiency: how the countryside is losing out’

In defence of the Green Belt: two recent newpaper letters

Attacks on the Green Belt are nothing new, but they do appear to be growing. The attacks are not coming, on the whole, from national politicians: there is an election soon, and politicians know how popular the Green Belt is. Indeed, Eric Pickles has just reiterated that ‘the essential characteristics of green belts are their openness and their permanence’.

The fact that we continue to lose alarming areas of Green Belt locally contradicts the rhetoric. I heard countless examples of Green Belt loss at a packed public meeting last night in Luton, organised by CPRE Bedfordshire, CPRE Hertfordshire and the Chiltern Society, and I know there are examples across the country (CPRE will be publishing a major report on this tomorrow). But I suppose it is some sort of consolation to hear national politicians queuing up to say how much they love the Green Belt, and that it will be safe with them next time.

But the attacks on Green Belt policy from the commentariat and developer-funded think-tanks are relentless. A recent edition of Radio 4’s Costing the Earth had in the anti-Green Belt camp not only the full-time anti-Green Belt polemicist, Paul Cheshire, but also Sir Simon Jenkins, former Chair of the National Trust, and Danny Dorling, who has argued persuasively against the simplistic view that simply building more houses will solve the housing crisis. (It was notable that Tom Heap, the presenter, could not find any ‘ordinary people’ to blame the Green Belt for their high house prices and long commutes.)

In the last week CPRE has had letters in defence of the Green Belt in the Observer and Independent. My letter in the Observer was in response to an excellent critique of the housing crisis by Rowan Moore. Paul Miner’s letter in the Independent responded to a piece by Ian Birrell which skilfully summarised almost every misconception about the Green Belt peddled by Paul Cheshire and the anti-planning, developer-funded think-tanks.

The letters are below. In the summer, CPRE will be publishing a report on anti-Green Belt myths, working title, Pestilential Nonsense Unmasked. Continue reading ‘In defence of the Green Belt: two recent newpaper letters’

Housing and intergenerational fairness

The Intergenerational Foundation has been running an excellent series of blogs on the housing crisis, with interesting postings from people such as Danny Dorling (whose book I wrote about in an earlier blog), Shelter’s Toby Lloyd, and Legal and General’s chief executive Nigel Wilson (who writes about the need to provide housing for older people). In my blog I get cross about politicians crying crocodile tears about housing affordability. Continue reading ‘Housing and intergenerational fairness’


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