After much delay, the government finally published its housing white paper earlier this week laying out how it plans to tackle the UK's housing crisis. Despite some positive moves such as forcing developers to start building within two years of securing planning permission and incentives for build to let there is not enough within these proposals to get to the root of addressing the UK's broken housing market. Most notably the government has failed to seize a clear opportunity to increase the UK's housing stock by loosening restrictions around the green belt.
The Prime Minister has already introduced some bold measures to alleviate the housing crisis such as establishing a £3 billion housing fund to use publicly owned land to help develop new homes and the creation of 14 new "garden" towns and villages of between 1,500 and 10,000 new homes across England. Added to the fact that Nimbyism is in decline there was an expectation that the government would liberalize building on green belt land as it acknowledged the worsening housing crisis in many parts of the country. However, the white paper abandoned any reference to easing restrictions noting that ministers will "reaffirm this government's commitment to the green belt."
For too long governments have viewed the green belt as sacrosanct, but with such limited housing supply action on the green belt is vital.
Contrary to public perception a lot of the green belt has very little environmental or amenity value nor is it chosen for its natural beauty - much of the land is poor-quality scrubland certainly not rolling green pastures. Most is privately owned and not accessible to the public. It's basic function is to prevent the urban sprawl.
Since 2001, when many leading political figures first started to raise the alarm about the shortfall in housebuilding, the left and the right have been desperate to prevent any incursion on the green belt. At the heart of this has been the idea that the UK is being covered in roads and buildings and very soon there'll be no countryside left. But this is clearly not the case. Only a fraction of the UK is developed - about seven per cent - and these figures include areas such as parks, gardens, allotments and sport pitches. Green belts actually cover more land - 13 per cent - than is built on. London's green belt is three times the area of the city itself and building on a tiny amount of it would make a significant difference to the supply of homes.
No one is calling for vast areas of beautiful countryside to be concreted over, but for small parts of land on the edges of towns and cities to be used for homes that are desperately needed. Research carried out by The Centre for Cities shows that building on just 5.2 per cent of green belt land within and around the UK's least affordable cities would provide 1.4 million new homes.
The government's decision this week to maintain all existing protections for green belt land will lock more ordinary families out of home ownership and limit the supply of affordable and secure rents. If the government is serious about improving lives for the "just about managing" it must look again at the case for loosening the green belt.