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The Green Belt must not be sacrificed for housing

Telegraph View

Next week will see the publication of yet another housing White Paper designed to “get Britain building again”. Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, seeks to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed and hit the targets for the supply of new homes.

He needs to do this within certain political parameters. Mr Javid may be under pressure from many sides to abandon protection of the Green Belt but he cannot do this without reneging on a promise made by the Conservatives in their 2015 election manifesto. Moreover, the Conservatives have championed the idea of greater local democracy. It would, therefore, be at odds with that approach if he were to force councils to adopt development plans they do not want.

The good news is that from what we know Mr Javid does not propose to go down either of these routes. He intends that existing Green Belt protections should remain in place. His White Paper will, however, reiterate the current position that green belt land can be developed in exceptional circumstances or when there is local agreement. It has never been the case that the Green Belt cannot be built on; but it should take place within very strict limits. The Tory election manifesto stated categorically “The Green Belt is safe for another five years under a Conservative Government”. They must stick to that.
As to local democracy, councils are required to draw up plans for new house building if they are to avoid having them forced on them by planning presumptions. However, one problem is that many councils then fail to follow through on their stated aims. One question to be addressed by the White Paper is how they can be encouraged to do what they say.

A further area that must be better explored is the development of brownfield sites. The manifesto included a commitment to “prioritise brownfield development” and the White Paper needs to show how this can be achieved. The Home Builders Federation have proposed a “presumption in favour of residential development on appropriate brownfield sites” to replace the current system of “public sector-led solutions through brownfield registers”. This is worth exploring though it also has implications for local democracy. None the less, if more houses are needed then it would be better if they were built in areas where the infrastructure exists for a growing population rather than on greenfield sites where roads, schools, GP surgeries and the like need to be provided.

Mr Javid’s White Paper will almost certainly take as given the almost universally accepted assumption that not enough houses are being built to match the demand created by new household formation. But is this actually true? Ian Mulheirn of Oxford Economics argues that this approach is entirely based on Whitehall projections that have turned out to be wrong. He has compared the forecasts with the data for actual household formation and found that the apparent requirement for at least 200,000 new built homes every year is not borne out by the evidence. In other words, there is enough housing but there are major problems of distribution and of inflation in London, the South East and some other hot spots around the country.
Mr Mulheirn’s evidence should at least be examined by ministers before they proceed. If there is no shortage of housing then other approaches are evidently needed to solve the problems of inadequate levels of social provision and rampant property price inflation. The latter is excluding many of our young people from the prospect of buying their own home until well into their middle age. Once upon a time, property ownership levels were higher in Britain than almost anywhere in Europe, but in recent years countries like France have overtaken us. It would be a betrayal of future generations not to address this – it is whether it can be done purely by building more houses on greenfield sites that is debatable.

One solution is to release more property currently underused by couples whose children have left home and now wish to move into a smaller house. Tax incentives to help them do so, such as an exemption from stamp-duty for downsizers, should be considered. Perhaps, too, private tenants of council-owned commercial property should have a right to buy and turn some of it to residential use. A judicious combination of sticks and carrots may well help unblock some of the sclerosis in the system preventing new building.

When the Government last tried to change the planning laws with the aim of increasing house building, this newspaper campaigned to retain our unique countryside and prevent the sort of development sprawl that has blighted so many other countries. Ministers listened then and we trust they will do so again.