Goodbye, Green Belt!

Last night BBC London News aired a short film I took part in about the Green Belt. As part of a series of ‘authored’ pieces about various solutions to London’s housing crisis, I suggested that we should allow construction on the Green Belt around London to increase the supply of developable land.

Cheshire-htg-fig-1Land, as Paul Cheshire likes to point out, is the key. The graph above shows how closely house price rises have tracked land price rises. Land-use restrictions on the Green Belt are quite strict: under the National Planning Policy Framework, local councils face a very high burden of proof to approve new developments on Green Belt land. If they were made less strict, then the supply of land and housing would increase and the price of both would fall.

I usually think of people who want to preserve the Green Belt as being motivated by financial considerations. If you own your house, you don’t want its value to fall, so you have a strong incentive to oppose any measure that will increase supply. Perhaps a large proportion of people involved in campaigns to ‘protect the Green Belt’ own their own homes. (And if not, that would certainly falsify this view.)

But filming with the BBC made me realize that this explanation is too neat and too unfair. The preservationist I interviewed, Dr Ann Goddard, was not preoccupied with preserving the value of her home – she believed, as many do, that relatively unspoiled natural areas are valuable and important to protect from development. The meadow she took us to was very pretty and I would regret losing places like it as well. Throughout our conversation Ann made it clear that her idea of England was entwined with its image as a ‘green and pleasant land’, not just somewhere for endless suburban sprawl.

Much of that greenery is worth keeping, but I suggest that the question is not ‘what’ but ‘where’. Since Green Belt land rings cities, it is much more difficult for city slickers to access than, say, gardens or parks. And lots of London already is covered in gardens or parks – more than half, according to one estimate. Allowing London to expand outwards would eat away at the Green Belt, but also allow more people to have gardens and for more (and bigger) parks to be built.

I also realized how important symbols can be: to Ann the meadow we went to WAS the Green Belt. If we’d taken her to a piece of intensive farmland (34% of the Green Belt around London) maybe she would have cared less about the prospect of that being turned into a village. And I wonder if focusing on intensive farmland is the key to changing people’s minds. In the end, if the battle over the Green Belt is about ideas and symbols rather than pocketbooks, a change of language might help us.

Why golf is a rubbish sport

The LSE’s Paul Cheshire has a good post up on the Spatial Economics Research Centre blog today on green- and brown-field development. Among other things, he explains why there are so many golf courses on the green belt:

Nothing wrong with golf or horsey culture but what we have to understand is that Greenbelt designation gives those land uses a massive subsidy. House building cannot compete for agricultural land but golf and horses can. I recently discovered another reason why we have so many golf courses around our cities: they are substitutes for landfill sites. It costs £80 a ton to dispose of ‘inert material’ in registered landfill sites but nothing if it goes into building bunkers! To quote Paul Robinson, Derby Council’s Strategic Director for Neighbourhoods, in defending the potential to capitalise on the value of the sites of the Councils two golf courses: “Effectively you go out to the waste industry and you say we will allow you to put your inert waste in our golf course…So you create mounds and bunker areas using the waste and at the core of those is inert waste.” .

This is one factor which underlies the proliferation of golf courses close to sources of builders’ waste and on land where there is no competition from houses. As noted in The Economist there is a serious oversupply of them. So the combination of Greenbelt designation and landfill costs means we can build as many golf courses as the market demands at their subsidised price but we cannot build houses. It is time to start turning some of our excess supply of golf courses into gardens; with houses on them!

The whole thing is a good read, particular the estimate of how much greenfield land is currently available to build on within a ten minute walk of a train station. (Quite a lot.)

George Monbiot really is a national treasure, isn’t he?

If it weren’t for the fact that The Guardian is where we send our national treasures to fossilise already we’d have to send George Monbiot there tout sweet. For he’s now come up with an argument so absurd that nothing other than the journalistic equivalent of a peerage, that home at Comment is Free, could possibly be appropriate:

Planning laws inhibit prosperity. That’s what we’re told by almost everyone. Those long and tortuous negotiations over what should be built where are a brake on progress. All the major parties and most of the media believe that we would be better off with less regulation, less discussion and more speed. Try telling that to the people of Spain and Ireland. Town planning in those countries amounts to shaking a giant dustbin over the land. Houses are littered randomly across landscapes of tremendous beauty, and are so disaggregated that they’re almost impossible to provide with public services. The result, of course, is a great advance in human welfare. Oh, wait a moment. No, it’s economic collapse followed by mass unemployment. Spain and Ireland removed the brakes on progress and the car rolled over a precipice. Their barely regulated planning systems permitted the creation of property bubbles that trashed the economy along with the land.

No, really, we’ve not made this up. That really is what he said. That the absence of strict planning regimes creates housing bubbles. That free supply of land to build upon increases the price of housing.

This is, of course, a confusion of the difference between correlation and causation. It’s true that the two countries had liberal planning systems (the Spanish one driven more by bribery than the law but still) and it’s also true that the two had housing booms and subsequent busts. But the causation is not between those two things: rather, it’s to their joint membership of the euro. Both economies were doing well while that of Germany was not. And within the eurozone interest rates were set to benefit the German economy, not the booming periphery. Thus rates were far too low for the broader economic conditions in Ireland and Spain: thus an asset bubble.

It was free money that drive those booms, not free planning permissions.

Three steps forward

In today’s City AM I outline a fairly simple growth agenda that would, I think, deliver very strong growth without requiring tax cuts (which are very important, but seem to be politically dead in the water right now). My three items are reform of planning, immigration and money (the ‘PIMs’, as I call them), by rolling back the green belt outside London, allowing high-skilled immigration, and targeting NGDP instead of inflation:

Whisper it, but things finally seem to be looking up. Investment is rising, unemployment is falling, and the deficit seems to be coming under control. But it could be a lot better. Real wages will not recover to their pre-crisis peak until 2020. And expected growth of 2.7 per cent this year is well below what we might expect in a real recovery.

The question is, how can we get the strong growth we all want? Tax cuts are nice, but hard to sell as long as the deficit remains large. And calls for business deregulation are often too vague to be useful. But there are clear areas for reform in planning, immigration, and money, and none would threaten the deficit. Reform these areas – the PIMs, we might call them – and real, booming, sustainable growth will come.

Read the whole thing.

Let me Google that for you

Google is being targeted by protesters angry about the rapid increase in the cost of living in San Francisco. Their complaint focuses on Google’s employee shuttle buses using municipal bus stops, but the real problem seems to be that well-paid Silicon Valley workers have driven rents up in the city. In City AM I argue that this is much more likely to be to do with planning controls restricting the supply of housing, and that government is to blame:

It comes down to supply and demand. As the Cato Institute’s David Boaz has noted, San Francisco’s strict planning laws have made it much more costly to build new housing to meet rising demand. Zoning laws restrict the construction of higher density buildings on the city’s limited land mass. Median rents are now the highest in the US. Over the past ten years, the city’s population has risen by 75,000, yet the number of housing units has increased by just 17,000. Paradoxically, rent controls that apply to some parts of the city are probably making things worse – those who live in rent-controlled housing may be OK, but there is no incentive to build more.

The parallels with London are obvious. Read the whole thing.