Re-examining London’s misnamed green belt

The momentum is building up for a change in London’s housing policy after the election. The ASI published “The Green Noose” by Tom Papworth in January, showing that over a third of protected Green Belt land is devoted to intensive farming, by no means pretty to look at or environmentally friendly, and which in fact generates net environmental costs.

In February London First published “The Green Belt – A Place for Londoners?” giving the facts and figures on London’s land, and showing that only 26% of London’s Green Belt consists of environmentally protected land, parks, and public access land. They similarly showed that only 27.6% of London is covered by buildings, roads, paths and railways.

In today’s City AM Mark Boleat, policy chairman at the City of London Corporation, makes similar points, quoting the London First report, and pointing out that “a full 60% of the Green Belt is private agricultural land.”

The research done by bodies such as the Adam Smith Institute and London First contradicts the popular image of the Green Belt as green and pleasant land. Far from the daisy-strewn meadows and woods teeming with wildlife that the term suggests, much Green Belt land is farmland, with monoculture fields by no means friendly to wildlife or accessible to people.

The first step in re-evaluation might be to classify Green Belt land into the different types that comprise it. There is genuinely green land, the fields and woods that everyone likes. There is damaged or brownfield land, partly made up of abandoned buildings, gravel pits and the like. And there is farmland, much of which is not environmentally friendly.

The government that takes office after May’s election could take the initiative to redress a chronic shortage of housing where it is needed by allowing building to take place on land of types two and three, while leaving the genuinely green land preserved. The opposition will be much diminished if it is understood that only damaged, distressed or intensively farmed land will be affected. And more to the point, the extra houses will bring down the costs of housing and make it available to more people.

The housing question isn’t just how many, but where

I usually like Policy Exchange’s work but its new paper on solving the housing crisis is a little disappointing. Its main argument is that “Over one million new homes could be built over the next decade if each of the 353 councils in England built just one garden village of 3,000 new houses”. The arithmetic checks out, but that still wouldn’t do much to solve the housing crisis.

The problem with England’s housing market is not simply that not enough houses are being built. It’s that they’re being built in the wrong places. According to Paul Cheshire, twice as many homes were built in Doncaster and Barnsley (where there isn’t much demand for housing) as in Oxford and Cambridge (where there is) in the five years to 2013. In 2002/03, it was three times as many!

This is why national house construction numbers can often be misleading. The crisis of unaffordable houses is mostly centred on places like London, Oxford, Cambridge and the rest of the South East. People want to live where the jobs are. (As it happens, an older Policy Exchange paper recognised this, suggesting policies designed to make it easier for people to move from North to South.)

Spreading housing development around the country will hence end up doing much less than we might hope. If your problem is a housing shortage in London, building more in Hull won’t help much.

A second problem is that building entirely new villages is expensive, because of the new infrastructure that needs to be built. The report suggests paying for this with levies on the new builds, which just reduces the downward pressure on prices these houses would have. Building all that extra infrastructure is needless when there is already so much empty land around existing train stations to be built on in the South East (enough for one million homes!), where there really is demand for new housing.

I also wonder how much people want to live in villages which really would be very small. At the UK average household size of 2.4, we’re talking about villages of 7,200 people, far enough from existing towns that those residents won’t object to them. As someone who grew up outside an Irish town with a population of 6,666 (seriously), take it from me – these places can be a little dull.

There are 138 authorities in London and the home counties. Building new homes there – even if they had to be in new villages – would be better than nothing, although I don’t know how you’d go about building new villages in central London. Building new homes in places like Scunthorpe and rural Cornwall would be a lot less good, and policies that do not recognise that will distract us from what we really need to do.

Maybe there’s no such thing as a bad policy that results in more housing, but is it too much to ask that they also be houses that people want to live in, in places they want to live?

Housing in London

In The Green Noose, Tom Papworth has argued persuasively for loosening the green belt. Another way to goose up the supply of housing in London would to deregulate the construction aspect of provision.

We welcome competition in local government, so let HMG pass legislation encouraging London Boroughs to bid for time-limited privileges. The idea would be that the first (as it might be) eight out of thirty-two London Boroughs would obtain the full extent of incremental rates on new housing arising, if they bid for temporary relief from taxes and regulatory restrictions.

New construction is already exempt from VAT, so the targets would be to suspend officious HMRC registration of subcontractors, so as to reduce labour costs; taxes on capital gains, profits and dividends arising out of qualifying developments, so as to incentivise developers and investors; and suspending stamp duty on associated property transactions, so as to cheapen costs to purchasers.

This is however likely to be less effective than deregulation of land-use and construction practices. As to land-use, we would advocate suspending

  • Height restrictions, protected sight-lines, listings, change-of-use consent and the whole paraphernalia of JNCC restrictions;
  • The rights of occupants of collectively owned properties to form blocking minorities refusing market compensation (this is with a view to easing the consolidation of building lots); and
  • Judicial review of compulsory purchase and planning decisions.

To conclude on this score, we would argue for a presumption of planning approval unless a reasoned refusal is delivered within fourteen days; developers’ access to an appeals tribunal with a presumption of summary reversal; and stricter tests for reasonability and timeliness in the exercise of neighbours’ rights, including local impact, party-walls and natural light.

Finally we turn to construction practices. These are hamstrung by obsolescent and intrusive restrictions by way of building and fire regulations. It’s an open secret that the latter are honoured in the breach, with new residents removing smoke-detectors and door-closers and demolishing corridor and lobby walls as soon as they can. As to building regulations, these are largely a cloak to defend time-expired practises and uncompetitive suppliers. Instead, let developers show that their proposals comply with best practice in the form of building codes elsewhere (eg. Vancouver, Melbourne or Chicago).

To those who argue that this encourages builders to resort to regulatory arbitrage, our answer is “why not?” More competition in local government!

Another strange idea to reform the housing market

It does continue to amuse us, watching the contortions that people twist themselves into in their attempts to reform the housing market. As opposed to, you know, just getting on with issuing more planning permissions so as to bring down the price of housing. The latest one is that self-builders should be treated as special little snowflakes with their own, special snowflake, planning permissions system:

But we also need to reform the land market, to make it dramatically easier for those without much capital to buy a plot of land and commission their own homes – either individually or as a group. All political parties pledge theoretical support for custom and self-build, and the government’s “Right to Build”, which allows people to buy council land on which to build their own houses, is a first step. But systemic change is needed to create a market providing land specifically for custom and self-build housing.

Let’s create a new land use class in the planning system “C5 Custom build”. In effect, that would create a parallel land market that differentiates between a house built as a speculative asset, and a house built as a place to live. Let’s create space for both, and see which works.

There’s only one problem with this suggestion. Which is that we don’t in fact want a special class of planning permission for self builders. What we actually want is simply the issuance of more planning permits. For as is entirely obvious to everyone the price of housing in the UK is determined by a shortage of said planning permissions. So, therefore, we don’t want the creation of a special system for special snowflakes, we simply want the loosening of the planning permission system as a whole. And then indeed self builders can run alongside more commercially minded organisations and may the best man win.

Green Belts increase business rents too

If you’ve picked up a newspaper or turned on a radio or TV today then the chances are you’ve read or heard about the Adam Smith Institute’s latest research paper – The Green Noose: An analysis of Green Belts and proposals for reform.

A section of the paper considers the impact of Green Belts upon businesses. As author Tom Papworth explains, increasing the cost of business premises increases the costs of running businesses, which pushes up prices. This reduces the real disposable incomes of households, while putting UK businesses at a competitive disadvantage by shifting production overseas.

A few years ago, I interviewed the inventor of the iconic Brompton bicycle. While visiting their factory in Wandsworth a couple of television crews from the BBC and ITV turned up to record the conveyor belts and workers in action. It turned out this was a common occurrence, principally because it’s the only manufacturing taking place on that scale in London (and the television crews didn’t want to travel any further). According to Papworth, London’s Green Belt could be the reason Brompton is that last factory standing:

Evans and Hartwich suggest that land-intensive industries, such as manufacturing, have declined rapidly, because many have fled the country to locate themselves in a country with lower land prices. If correct, this would be a major challenge to the conventional view that deindustrialisation was the result of supply-side reforms and monetarist policies in the 1980s, instead suggesting that our land use planning laws bore a substantial amount of responsibility for the decline of UK manufacturing in the past half century.

This makes sense. LSE Geography Professor Henry Overman cites some concerning research in an useful blog looking at the case for building on Green Belts:

“Green Belts increase office rents. Cheshire and Hilber (2008) carefully document how planning restrictions in England impose a ‘tax’ on office developments that varies from around 250 per cent (of development costs) in Birmingham, to 400-800 per cent in London. In contrast, New York imposes a ‘tax’ of around 0-50 per cent, Amsterdam around 200 per cent and central Paris around 300 per cent.”

If enacted, the paper’s suggested reforms would provide affordable housing to Generation Rent, more competitive business rents, and the possibility for more manufacturing entrepreneurs to run their businesses out of this country. What’s not to like?

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.