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- London’s housing crisis could be eased by building one million new homes on the 3.7 percent of the Green Belt within walking distance of a railway station.
- Much of the protected land is not environmentally valuable at all—37 percent of London's Green Belt is intensively farmed agricultural land.
- The Green Belt has negative environmental effects; protection of the Green Belt leads to more land being devoted to transport infrastructure and to more pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
- England's planning system needs radical reform to allow for two and a half million new homes to be built. This would take up less than 0.5 percent of the landmass of England.
London's housing crisis could be solved by allowing the construction of one million new homes in the 3.7 percent of the Green Belt within walking distance of a railway station, a new Adam Smith Institute report has found.
The report, The Green Noose: An analysis of Green Belts and proposals for reform, looks at the Green Belt's impact on England’s housing shortage. After a comprehensive review of the causes of the housing crisis, it concludes that the planning structure is out of date and in need of radical reform.
The paper argues that the benefits of the Green Belt accrue to a small group of people at the expense of many more in denser areas. Access to the Green Belt correlates closely with household income: Green Belt policy preserves large amounts of plentiful green space around the well-off at the expense of rarer green space near the badly-off in England’s cities. By limiting supply the policy inflates house prices and rents and acts as a de facto wealth transfer from poorer non-homeowners to middle- and upper-income homeowners.
The paper, authored by Adam Smith Institute Senior Fellow Tom Papworth, estimates that the two and a half million new homes that will be required over the next decade could be built on just 0.5 percent of the landmass of England, or two percent of the country’s Green Belt land. Building one million new homes around London, where demand is strongest, would use up just 3.7 percent of the capital’s Green Belt.
Though the Green Belt’s defenders claim that this would be environmentally harmful, much of the protected land is not environmentally valuable at all—37 percent of London's Green Belt is intensively farmed agricultural land, which is environmentally costly. The report argues that cheaper land would mean more gardens and parks in residential areas, which are both environmentally positive.
The paper finds that that non-intensively farmed Green Belt land has negative environmental effects as well. Green Belt rules lead to more land being devoted to transport infrastructure and hence to more pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Land is “preserved” only at the expense of other land that is potentially more valuable environmentally but is further removed from towns.
The paper also concludes that brownfield land is not a viable alternative: perhaps surprisingly, brownfield sites often have high environmental value, and are much more expensive to build on than Green Belt.
The report proposes three different policy initiatives to reform the effect of urban containment policies on house prices, house sizes, house price volatility, costs to business and the environment. They are:
Abolition of the Green Belt combined with adequate protection for areas of real environmental, heritage or amenity value;
Removal of Green Belt designations from all intensive agricultural land; or
Removal of Green Belt designations from all intensive agricultural land within half a mile of a railway station.
Either of the first two options would solve the UK’s housing shortage and stimulate economic growth without the loss of any land of environmental, heritage or amenity value.
The third would go a long way to solving the housing crisis in the medium term and would be far easier to achieve politically, though it would only be a stopgap solution; further reform would be needed to guarantee enough housing for the population growth expected in the long term.
Author of the report, Tom Papworth, said:
Britain faces an acute housing crisis, especially around its major metropolitan centres. Yet land is available in abundance. It is a myth that Britain is densely populated or highly built-up compared to similar countries. London could meet its additional housing need for the next decade on just 3.7 percent of Greenbelt by building only on intensive farmland within half a mile of an existing railway station.
Official justifications for Green Belt policy are based on ambiguous or confused concepts, while the popular belief that Green Belts are environmentally beneficial and enable citizens to access greenspace is untrue. In fact the opposite is the case: Green Belts are actively harmful to the environment as a third is intensive farmland and it necessitates more road and railway construction; protecting Green Belts puts greater pressure on urban greenspace which people visit far more regularly.
Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, added:
This report is a major contribution to the debate around the housing crisis, and offers a simple, politically viable solution that would improve Britain’s fiscal situation and dramatically increase the supply of new homes. In the post-War period the price of housing has closely tracked the price of land, and the supply of land seems to be the limiting factor in the current housing supply crunch. That means that, to solve the housing crisis, the best policy is to liberate the land. The Green Belt is a post-War anachronism that is not fit for purpose in modern Britain. Whether you want private sector or social housing to build the new homes, the first step must be to reform it.
Notes to editors: Read The Green Noose: An analysis of Green Belts and proposals for reform here.
For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Kate Andrews, Communications Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org / 07584 778207.
The Adam Smith Institute is an independent libertarian think tank based in London. It advocates classically liberal public policies to create a richer, freer world.