The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) released its latest update today, two years on from some of the Coalition’s modest efforts to liberalise the planning system.
One of the main contentions of the report is that the local plans adopted under the new framework mean land for 729,000 homes has been allocated in England – 190,000 of which are planned to be on the Green Belt.
That certainly sounds like a lot – but how much is it in context?
On average, 43 new dwellings in England were built per hectare of freshly developed land in 2008 – let’s round that down to 40, so that we don’t produce a conservative estimate. That sort of density would require 4,750 hectares for the 190,000 homes.
As of November 2012, there were 1,639,410 hectares of Green Belt land, suggesting that the homes themselves would take up about 0.29 per cent of the area.
Now of course, that doesn’t include the land needed for roads, rail links and other infrastructure: it’s not as clear to me how those can be reasonably estimated without researching where exactly the planned areas are for the 190,000 homes.
For convenience, let’s double the proportion of land required, and say that a hectare is needed for each 20 homes and the associated infrastructure – this seems like a relatively generous estimate to me.
This rough guess would mean that the 190,000 homes made up 0.58 per cent of the Green Belt. It suggests that you might need 2.4 per cent of the Green Belt to build 950,000 homes with their associated infrastructure.
The Future Homes Commission says that the UK needs 300,000 homes a year – based on the breakdown of dwellings built by private enterprise in different parts of the country over recent years, that might mean around 240,000 completions each year in England. That 2.95 per cent of the Green Belt might be space for enough dwellings for nearly four years of strong supply. Personally, I would take that deal.
As Richard Blyth of the Royal Town Planning Institute highlights, my solution is a bit pie in the sky:
Just providing houses won’t hack it… The key question is how to do this in a planned way, not in a free for all, leaving communities in poor locations with rubbish transport links.
I haven’t accounted for proper transportation and the other amenities needed, let alone the funding of public infrastructure. It’s not a complete plan, just an acknowledgement that Green Belts really do cover a lot of England, and that even a much more dramatic planning liberalisation would not change the majority of the regions. Richard also adds the most important question, although I think we’d answer it differently:
If voters really want to prioritise greenfields, are they going to dig deep and agitate for the solutions to work? What price are people prepared to pay for greenfields?
It’s worth reminding everyone that fewer than 40m people lived in the UK when the Green Belt came into existence, and that it has doubled in size in the last 35 years. It’s worth letting people know that only 9.4 per cent of the belt is made up by sites of scientific interest or land which is open to access for the public. A lot of the land is neglected and there seems to be (though I can’t guarantee) a growing realisation among policymakers that building on at least some of the Green Belt is a necessary part of relieving the UK from its housing crisis.
What I’d really like to see from the CPRE, if they were so inclined, is a realistic way to get the 300,000 houses per year that the Future Homes Commission propose without touching the Green Belt. Wouldn’t that be a better contribution to the debate?