Saturday, 7 February 2015

Paul Cheshire: Green-belts number one enemy

If you have joined the fight to save England's green belt from developers you need to know that you are faced up against a particularly powerful nemesis. He comes in the shape of a emeritus professor at the London Schools of Economics by the name of Paul Cheshire.  Here are some of his typical comments form some of his articles such as "Turning housesinto gold:the failure of British planning"

 There is no alternative but to reconsider greenbelt land. We have to increase supply of housing land and that cannot be done on brownfield sites alone because there is surprisingly few of them and they are not in the right places where the demand for housing is.
Twenty per cent of London is greenbelt land; that is enough land to build 1.6 million new houses on. Nearly 20,000 hectares of that is within 800 metres of a station."
It is only after the next elections that the Government will begin to tackle this issue properly. To do so before would risk the wrath of the Home County set.
"What greenbelts 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."

As well as being an academic in areas such as urban land and housing markets, Cheshire is an advisor to the UK government. Among his words you will never hear talk of biodiversity, wildlife or the beauty and character of rural England. Given his one-sided views he seems like little more than a spin doctor writing monologues intended to prepare the country to replace its countryside with urban sprawl. His words have spread like a cancer through the Conservative party, spawning articles with titles such as "Let's build in the green belt" by Tory Councillor Andrew Carter.

But not all hope is lost. Look for example at the comments on Carter's article which are unanimously opposed to his point of view. There are alternatives. Lord Heseltine points to brown field sites along the Thames Estuary previously used by now defunct shipping industries. That in itself will not be enough and bigger issues need to be addressed.

Cheshire informs us that houses are being built in the wrong place because of constraints imposed on green belt land. "Twice as many houses were built in Doncaster and Barnsley in the five years to 2013 than in Oxford and Cambridge." he says. So is it really the houses that are being built in the wrong places or jobs that are being created in the wrong places? The independent reports that for every 12 jobs created in the South, one is lost in the North. Isn't this the real cause of the problem?
The increased demand for homes in the UK is undeniable. It has a number of underlying causes including increased lifespan and lifestlyes shifting towards singles living in their own homes, but the biggest factor is immigration with workers from abroad being welcomed to fill jobs in areas such as nursing and the construction industry. If you see this as a bad thing you can always vote UKIP but you may also see it as an opportunity to help regenerate areas of the country where jobs are few and there is plenty of room on brown field sites for new homes.

Some of those who want to "loosen the green belt" claim that there is plenty of land to build on around London.

"Contrary to another popular myth, Britain is neither particularly densely populated, not is it over-developed. The population density of the UK is similar to that of Germany and less than Belgium, Japan or the Netherlands"

The trouble with this is that it is only true if you include sparsely populated parts of the UK. If you look at the population density of England alone it is higher than every other European country except small states like the Vatican City. It is only really rivaled by countries such as South Korea and Bangladesh. If you were to exclude areas of England such as the North East and the South West the problem is even more acute. Other European countries do not have such an uneven distribution of people. London is by far the Europe's most populated city with well over twice the number of people in the next biggest city Berlin, and more than the combined total of the next three Madrid, Rome and Paris. If we are going to compare ourselves with Germany, Belgium, Japan and the Netherlands should we not look at how they manage to distribute their prosperity more evenly than we do? This, after all, is the age of the internet. The need for businesses to huddle together in groups is diminishing by the day as technology takes away the need for direct handshaking to seal a deal. The UK needs a more visionary plan to build for the next generation than concreting over the green belt so we can all be piped into the capital on crowded polluting transport. The UK government currently offers a New Home Bonus to local authorities for every home they build. Shouldn't they offer a New Job Bonus instead?

The idea of protecting green belts around cities goes back over a hundred years to 1914 when architect Aston Webb first used the term. It was incorporated into UK law with the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 and now includes 13% of land in England around the largest cities (see map below). According to government policy "The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open" Notice the word permanent. As soon as this undertaking is relaxed the protection is gone and the erosion of the landscape around cities will quickly take hold. Is this really what people want?

So is building on green belt land a sin of the Tories? If only it were that simple. An article in the Telegraph proclaims that "Labour plans to build on the green belt if it wins the election" The conservatives have built protections for green belt into their policies such as the National Planning Policy Framework and Eric Pickles scalds Labour for trying to force local authorities to build more homes. It will be interesting to see if he supports building on green belt in his own constituency.

The fact is that the way things are at the moment both parties see the demand for new homes to be a bigger vote winner than the demand to protect the green belt. The parties can argue about the means until the cows come home (or don't if the politicians get their way) but it does not make much difference in the end if they build on green belt because the government forced them directly or if they induced the local councils to do it for cash. If we want to win this fight for the environment we need to let more people know that the green belt is worth saving and that there are other options. Getting on the property ladder has always been a hard step in this country. It has not really changed that much in the last thirty years and the solution for keeping the status quo into the future should involve job distribution, not the destruction of the countryside.

Map of the green belt in England

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