'Discriminatory' green belt policies causing housing affordability crisis, says LSE professor

Green belt polices are 'discriminatory' and aim to keep 'the urban unwashed out of the Home Counties' as well as causing spiralling house prices, according to new research by the London School of Economics (LSE).

Green belt land at Clandon, near Guildford, Surrey
Green belt land at Clandon, near Guildford, Surrey

Britain’s housing affordability "crisis" has been caused by "decades of planning policies that constrain the supply of houses and land", according to the study by Paul Cheshire, professor emeritus of economic geography at the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance and a researcher at the Spatial Economics Research Centre.

In his study, he claims that housing is being built in the wrong place, pointing out that "twice as many houses were built in Doncaster and Barnsley in the five years to 2013 than in Oxford and Cambridge".

He states: "Policy has been actively preventing houses from being built where they are most needed or most wanted – in the leafier and prosperous bits of ex-urban England."

Between 1994 and 2012, building fell short of meeting housing demand by between 1.6 and 2.3 million houses, he says.

House prices increased by a factor of 3.36 from the start of 1998 to late 2013 in Britain as a whole, says Cheshire, and by a factor of 4.24 over the same period in London.

According to Cheshire, "the crisis of housing affordability" is explained by "a longstanding and endemic crisis of housing supply" which itself is "caused primarily by policies that intentionally constrain the supply of housing land".

He states: "What policy is doing is turning houses and housing land into something like gold or artworks – into an asset for which there is an underlying consumption demand but which is in more or less fixed supply."

Urban expansion, particularly of London, was halted by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, by regulating changes of land use and introducing green belt policies.

Cheshire attacks the idea that green belts are environmentally-friendly, because they are mostly used for intensive farmland which "which generates negative net environmental benefits", while urban parks and gardens ‘provide far richer biodiversity".

Neither do they "provide a social or amenity benefit" for city dwellers, he adds, with "little or no public access to green belt land".

Cheshire states: "Since our planning system prevents housing competing, land for golf courses stays very cheap. More of Surrey is now under golf courses – about 2.65 per cent – than has houses on it."

Instead, green belt simply provides value for "those who own houses within them", he claims, adding: "What green belts really seem to be is a very British form of discriminatory zoning, keeping the urban unwashed out of the Home Counties – and of course helping to turn houses into investment assets instead of places to live."

The professor says more land should be released for development "while protecting our environmentally and amenity-rich areas more rigorously than we do at present".

He states: "Building on greenbelt land would only have to be very modest to provide more than enough land for housing for generations to come: there is enough greenbelt land just within the confines of Greater London – 32,500 hectares – to build 1.6 million houses at average densities."

Such development would reduce pressure to build on urban green spaces, improve the quality of housing and allow more London workers to live closer to the capital, reducing commuter times and carbon emissions, he says.

The full article can be found here

john.geoghegan@haymarket.com


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