The Green Belt, a ring of countryside around cities designating greenfield sites where housing will always be refused permission, remains sacrosanct to this day. Many politicians argue that without it London would stretch 186km from Brighton on the south coast to Milton Keynes in the north, a suburban sprawl that might be acceptable in Australian cities with the huge space around them in which to expand but not in cramped England. The trouble is . . .
Everyone agrees more homes need to be built but no one wants them on their doorstep, a syndrome known as NIMBYism, or Not In My Backyard. In England, where the housing problem is most acute, local authorities are responsible for planning, both strategically and for granting planning permission, and in some areas are still partners in housing development but if they dare touch Green Belt their councillors face the wrath of the electors. As a result over 40% of English local planning authorities do not have a plan that meets the projected growth in households in their area, partly for fear of stirring up the wrath of voters who in local authority elections tend to be older and already homeowners. Yet only 11% of land in England has been developed. The government believes 275,000 homes a year need to be built to meet demand.
The sensitivity about building on Green Belt land is however not the only reason for the housing crisis. The soaring cost of housing has put buying out of the reach of most young people in London and to a lesser extent the south east around the capital while rents too have escalated but councils no longer build council homes like they did in the 1950s and 1960s. Since the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher announced ‘right to buy’ for council house tenants huge numbers of council homes have gone into the private sector. Most ‘social housing,’ though there is little of it, is now left to housing associations. Councils stipulate that developments must contain an element of ‘affordable’ housing but in London even this is out of the reach of many young people. Developers, who often blame councils for being too slow in granting planning permission, are in turn blamed for ‘land banking.’ It is not after all in their interests to have a glut of land bringing down prices.
Last month the government attempted to come up with some answers by introducing a White Paper (WP) for England, ‘Fixing our broken housing market.’ Firstly, the WP insisted that existing protection for the Green Belt would remain and could only be amended in exceptional circumstances. However it proposed other changes. It allowed local authorities to increase their planning fees by 20% from July 2017 after complaints from developers that councils were taking too long to give planning permission while in turn councils said the amount they were allowed to charge for processing applications was well below their real cost. It incentivised councils to deliver more homes on public sector land with a new land release fund. To encourage those councils reluctant to consider local demand for homes the government is consulting on whether to impose a standardised approach to assessing housing need. The White Paper also addressed the dominance of a small number of big developers, with 60% of new homes built by ten companies, by encouraging smaller firms into the market. It also accepted that the English obsession with home ownership obscured the fact that a more balanced mix of rent and ownership was increasingly in demand.
The White Paper received a mixed reception. Critics said it skirted over intractable issues such as allowing more building on the Green Belt, or giving local authorities more borrowing powers to build social housing themselves. However it at least attempted to address the reasons for the shortage of new homes and agreed that the causes were complex with both the private and public sectors having to take responsibility. Few experts however have much faith that it will make much difference in the short term.