Oxford is a beautiful place, famous for its university and fine medieval buildings. But it also stands as symbol of Britain’s housing crisis, branded the country’s least affordable city with average property prices 11.5 times the area’s average annual wage. This is partly a story of success, with families, firms and students drawn towards the dreaming spires. Yet a significant slice is overspill from London, reflecting the intensity of property shortages in southern England.
There are many complex reasons for the housing failures that blight so many lives, as UnHerd examined in its Home Truths series last week. And it will take many years to tackle a legacy of Westminster ineptitude and local authority weakness. Yet there is one simple dragon to slay that would speed up resolution of this crisis. Green belt.
This has been recognised by Susan Brown, the new leader of Oxford City Council. In one of her first acts, she declared her desire to slacken the green belt that is stifling development. “There is no ability to build enough dwellings to meet our housing needs within the city’s boundaries,” she said last week.
She was attacked instantly by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which has long seen its main mission to be safeguarding such sacred spaces. This was predictable: the bosses and bores of this body increasingly appear like druids from an ancient sect, determined to resist change however antiquated and risible their arguments. “The very purpose of the green belt is to prevent urban sprawl,” said one local trustee.
And herein lies the problem. Green belt is an outmoded concept that is strangling cities, destroying countryside and forcing people to commute hefty distances. It was launched after the Second World War, when 15 million fewer people lived on these islands. Since then, it has grown like knotweed, now covering more than one-eighth of the country.
In the London region it is three times bigger than the capital, creating a giant doughnut that forces people to live further and further from workplaces in distant commuter towns. The same is seen in cities such as Oxford and York, with Green Belt bigger than the place it is supposedly protecting.
Almost half the land in England is protected. This includes glorious national parks and many rightly protected nature areas – yet the bulk of this is green belt. Duncan Sandys, the Tory minister behind its expansion in the 1950s, said such areas did not need to be green nor attractive since the purpose was to prevent development. So what a shame this concept was not given a less bucolic moniker; instead, it sounds leafy and lush, so few politicians dare attack something that ossified into a sanctified slab of British heritage hardly less worshipped than the health service.
Some of this land is worthy of the name. Yet more than half is used for intensive farming, which could not be further removed from arcadian ideals with often limited public access, barren fields drenched in chemicals and grim lack of wild creatures. Great chunks are grey or sludge brown, given over to airports, gravel pits, railway embankments and water treatment works. There is often greater biodiversity in all our carefully-nurtured city gardens. Meanwhile school playing fields are sold off, transport systems overflow and essential urban development gets squashed into poorer parts of cities rather than richer zones spared by proximity to green belt.
Certainly there is room for new homes within existing urban areas – as highlighted by a recent Centre for Cities report showing our cities to be less built up than many European counterparts. ‘The densest square kilometre in the country, with a population of 20,000, is in the London neighbourhood of Maida Vale — an affluent area which doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of an urban jungle,’ said researcher Hugo Bessis. Compare this with Barcelona, one of the world’s great cities, which has density of up to 53,000 people per square kilometre. But driving up urban density is not a short-term fix for one of the nation’s most pressing problems.
The green belt is a powerful weapon in hands of those nimbies who are such a strong force in our planning system as they protect bricks and mortar that represent key assets. I have often heard well-heeled Labour voters in my area of north London bemoan nearby new developments even as they berate Tory policies ‘attacking’ less prosperous people. And note how MPs call for solutions to the housing crisis – then without slightest embarrassment find reasons to oppose schemes that upset their constituents. Theresa May opposed dozens of new homes in a green field site in Cookham, then demanded urgent reforms to boost new-build numbers.
We must review that green belt map – not scrap it, but modernise an idea designed for distant times that does not suit modern needs. The main aim of the original policy was to stymie the spread of London into surrounding fields and woods, yet more than one-fifth of land mass in a city facing chronic shortage of housing supply is now green belt. ‘This leaves us with the strange yet taken-for-granted situation that green belt prevents development inside London,’ reflected Alan Mace, an urban planning expert at the London School of Economics.
Carving off a few chunks of this often-misnamed land in areas of urgent housing need would be a major boon for families and firms across England. In London, one million more homes could be built in return for giving up less than 4% of green belt, revealed the Adam Smith Institute three years ago. The same is true of many other besieged towns and cities. For the sake of the British economy, the environment, the creaking transport system and, above all, the well-being of many citizens, we need to urgently loosen the green belt.