Has there ever been a more opportune time to reform the UK’s exceptionally strict rules against building on the so-called “green belt”?
Huge swathes of protected land surround cities and towns such as London, Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham and Manchester. Soaring house prices and rental costs in these areas have prompted a sea change in people’s attitudes to building: the British Social Attitudes survey shows that just 21 per cent of respondents oppose new housing in their local area, down sharply from 46 per cent in 2010.
Yet even the slightest liberalisation of green belt rules is still politically toxic, with any changes facing fierce opposition especially among MPs in the shires. However, with a sharp decline in Nimby-esque views among the public, and with Sajid Javid – an avowed free-marketeer – supposedly in charge of a new housing white paper, this seemed like a unique opportunity for reform.
The idea of green belt “swaps” had been floated, which would have allowed a piece of land to be freed up for housing so long as it was offset by protecting a separate and equivalent patch of land.
Alas, this was scrapped. Of course no one is calling for vast areas of picturesque countryside to be concreted over, but simply for small parts of land on the outskirts of towns – much of which already consists of housing, roads, train lines and derelict buildings – to be utilised for homes that are desperately needed.
With incremental reform squashed by the white paper, published yesterday, attention must turn towards big and bold developments within our cities and towns. Here in London, projects such as the Greenwich Peninsula and Old Oak Common offer some hope, but more are needed – and with green belt reform off the table, there is greater pressure to densify these inner city regeneration schemes.
As this newspaper’s argued in the past, London has three options: build up, build out, or – if neither – then accept an increasing hit to economic growth and social mobility. It would be unconscionable to tolerate the latter. With Theresa May’s government lacking the nerve to tackle the housing crisis, urban authorities such as City Hall must be prepared to take matters into their own hands and pave the way towards more sizeable, ambitious new developments.