The UK has a housing crisis. The Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2015 General Election pledged to build one million homes over the course of the parliament, or 200,000 new houses a year. But many believe this is insufficient. For instance, an independent report by KPMG found that, owing to demographic change, 250,000 new homes a year are required. But current building rates lag well behind even the Government’s modest target, with just 140,000 new build homes completed last year.
The Prime Minister wants to rectify this. On the steps of Downing Street after becoming Prime Minister, she included in her list of burning injustices facing modern Britain the fact that young people now find it harder than ever to own a home. In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party Conference, she named housing as a dysfunctional market that government needs to step up to correct.
But, as it is responsible for around 11% of land use in England, housing’s relation to the environment must also be considered. The most recent State of Nature report, published by RSPB and a range of conservation organisations, finds that in the UK 56% of the species they studied have declined over recent decades, with more than one in ten of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing from our shores altogether. The Government has committed to turning this around, with its pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. But it needs specific policies if it is to realise this vision.
This was the context for this month’s housing white paper. And, while many of the measures contained within it are welcome, it is a missed opportunity for both housebuilding and the environment.
Positives from the housing white paper
Let’s start with the positives. First, the Government strategy places greater emphasis on the quality of design of new developments. Under the proposals, local and neighbourhood plans must contain expectations about design standards. Local residents will be able to object to new developments on aesthetic grounds. According to government polling, 73% of people say that they would be more likely to support new homes if they look nice and are in keeping with other properties in the area. This measure will both boost numbers of homes and improve the appearance of the built environment.
Second, the Government plan supports high-density housing. The National Planning Policy Framework will be amended to advise against low-density developments in areas of high housing demand, increase scope for high-density developments in urban areas by redeveloping low-rise warehouses or extending buildings upwards, and increase flexibility over planning restrictions, such as daylight requirements. Greater density of buildings could increase the volume of new homes and improve the environment, as it frees up more land for nature and enables more sustainable transport solutions to be utilised. But this must not mean sacrificing access to urban green spaces, nor must it mean sacrificing high-quality design standards.
The negative: the Green Belt
But the white paper’s greatest shortcoming was that it maintained a very rigid approach to the Green Belt, with councils told not to allow any development except in very special circumstances. The Green Belt was first established around London in 1938, and in 1955 was extended to other cities. Its purpose was to prevent urban sprawl. The Green Belt has largely failed on its own terms.
Cities like London are characterised by low-density housing, a fact that government acknowledges in the housing white paper. For instance, Paris has a population density of 213 people per hectare, while Islington’s (London’s densest borough) is 128 people per hectare. This is because, instead of living in more densely-built homes in central London, London’s workers have just leapfrogged the Green Belt and bought homes in commuter towns throughout the South East of England. This has led to a proliferation of low-density housing developments across a much broader area, and an increase in carbon-intensive commuter journeys to work each day.
The Green Belt shouldn’t be abolished altogether. Its benefits include reducing air pollution, mitigating the impact of flooding, and providing urban residents with access to green space, which can bring positive effects on mental health. But if homes are to be built where people want to live, then some of the Green Belt will need to be built on. Many have proposed limiting these sites to ones within a certain proximity of a train station.
But there is an upside for the environment in allowing building on the Green Belt, beyond merely reducing the number and distance of journeys travelled by commuters. At the moment, much Green Belt land is of poor environmental value. Just over 7% of London’s Green Belt consists of golf courses, for instance. While this isn’t an excuse in itself for scrapping the Green Belt, it demonstrates the urgent need to improve its natural capital. Therefore, in return for being allowed to build on these highly valuable plots of land, developers should have an obligation to improve the stock of natural capital elsewhere in a local authority area, for instance by planting more trees or creating nature trails. This investment should more than reverse the loss of natural capital entailed by the new development. This would deliver more homes and improve the stock of natural capital in England.
Building more homes and improving the environment are not in opposition. More homes, more densely built, should be accompanied by major investment in natural capital in the outskirts of our major cities. As it considers the consultation responses to its white paper, the Government should be bold.
Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue