Letter: Boles' Newsnight comments should be welcomed

Nick Boles' Newsnight interview regarding 'building on another 2-3% of open land in England' (see link) is to be welcomed, in so far as he is raising the very real problem of housing delivery and housing need.

The aspiration for home ownership looks to be an increasingly distant one for a large proportion of the population, and more and more people find themselves reliant on rented accommodation, be that in public or private ownership. 

Basic demand-and-supply economics dictate that house prices, particularly in London and the South East, can only go one way. Whilst commentators contend that the private rental sector will help to bridge the gap, they are less specific on how the same economic pressures will avoid sky-high rental levels. In the same way that many people presently cannot afford to buy across much of London and its hinterland, so equally they cannot afford to rent – and this trend will only continue until there is a material change in housing delivery.
 
Notwithstanding this context, the opportunity for an open and sensible debate on the subject is almost certainly bound to fail before it has begun, and the Minister has to look at himself for the reasons why. Those involved in the industry – be they promoters or opponents of housebuilding – are all too aware that it is impossible to discuss greenfield development without raising the thorny subject of the Green Belt in the same breath.  However, Mr Boles, in repeating the rhetoric of Eric Pickles (Conservative Party Conference) and Nick Clegg (speech to the National House Building Council on Garden Cities, 22nd November) has immediately ruled out development on Green Belt land. That is disingenuous, and fundamentally misleading to the general public.
 
What is open land? If it existed, developers and housebuilders would not need the services of planning consultants. In its place lies land of high agricultural value, high landscape value, flood plain, sports fields, land of outstanding natural beauty, sites of special scientific interest, strategic gaps, land of ecological value, scheduled ancient monuments, land blighted by infrastructure, and other more bespoke designations that have evolved through the careful analysis of the country by numerous generations of town planners.  By way of contrast, the Green Belt is often arbitrary in its coverage.  However, it is the latter that typically dominates news headlines, and triggers an emotive response over the need to protect England’s green and pleasant land.

Mr Boles’ categorical statement will ensure that any Green Belt authority will be accused of foul play by objectors to development if they seek even minor Green Belt land release, whilst those authorities that lie beyond the Green Belt are unlikely to be thanked by their communities or elected members for taking the national strain on house building.  One or two million homes cannot be built where market pressure demands whilst the Government continues to state that the Green Belt will not be affected.   
 
Mr Boles has neglected to highlight the reality of what is currently happening in the South East.  Housing development projects in the Green Belt are already receiving planning permission or development plan allocations.  Schemes are being approved on appeal, or following recovery by the Secretary of State.  Many authorities have already accepted the need for Green Belt land for release.  When is Green Belt land not Green Belt land? When it has been re-allocated for housing development.    
 
Inevitably there will be those that say what about brownfield land and empty homes? In respect of the former, a generation has grown up fuelled on the belief that the nation’s housing requirements can be met by a never ending supply of abandoned, yet ripe-for-gentrification, industrial estates. That inevitably makes it more difficult to now convince the public that greenfield development is necessary. However, it is a rare authority in the South East that can meet its full housing requirement without relying, at least in part, on greenfield land.

In terms of empty homes, those that do exist are in the wrong place. I recently had a conversation with a chartered surveyor who is the appointed Receiver on a large portfolio of terraced houses in the north west. He took a call from a potential purchaser offering him £10,000 for a three-bedroom, family home. Appalled by the low offer, he was nevertheless obliged to report it to his client, a prominent bank. "Take it!", he was told. "That’s the best offer we’ve had".
 
Vacant housing in the north of the country is a depressing tale, but it shouldn’t be allowed to hijack the need for housing in the South East. The Government owes it to the public to be honest about the scale of the problem, which fundamentally includes being honest about decisions that are already being made concerning the Green Belt. It cannot expect the development industry to invest in expensive, high-risk planning projects, or for local authorities and elected members to take often controversial decisions, without providing greater leadership and clarity on this issue.
 
Ian Anderson MRTPI
Executive director
Iceni Projects Limited

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