The UK faces a conundrum that grows more pressing with each passing year. Population growth, speculative investment, poor public transport links, and regional decline have made buying property almost impossible for most young people. Every so often, a potential solution is offered – build on greenbelt land. The thinking is that increased supply on cheaper land will lead to lower prices. However, this plan comes up against some of the fiercest resistance in British politics—people of all stripes feel uncomfortable with building on greenbelt land. Our rolling hills and hedgerows are sacrosanct. But is our concern misplaced?
There’s a sound argument that some greenbelt land isn’t in the condition we popularly imagine it to be. Siobhain McDonagh MP explains the issue:
“22% of land within London’s boundary is Green Belt. Much of this is around train stations and little is luscious and green. There are 19,334 hectares of unbuilt Green Belt land within a 10-minute walk of London’s train stations. This is not traditional Green Belt land. At no environmental cost, this is enough for almost one million new home in London.”
Restrictive greenbelt conditions around major cities like London and Cambridge force building to take place further away, requiring more roads, and more cars on those roads. The housing crisis feels little benefit, because the housing isn’t being built where need is greatest.
If the UK were able to distribute its economic earning power more evenly, rather than being concentrated in major urban areas, this might be a viable way of growing the pool of available housing. Instead, London is bursting at the seams.
In 2016-17, 4 percent of all new homes were built on greenbelt land, a rise of 2 percent. In contrast, the number of homes built on previously developed brownfield sites decreased from 57 percent to 51 percent. These kinds of numbers only serve to alarm the defenders of greenbelt land. Yet, in most cases it was a package of greenbelt land released as part of a larger project that used previously developed land.
To advocates, this may act as a viable path to moving forward with regards development. Smaller towns need to be able to release small parts of greenbelt to developers in order to prevent the spread of the town and stop it from joining with other towns and erasing the countryside in between.
It must be noted that the CPRE claims new housing being built on greenbelt land won’t solve the housing crisis. According to their report, of the 460,000 homes set to be built on these sites, only 22 percent will be classed as affordable housing.
One of the hurdles that needs to be addressed is the reluctance to build up. Brownfield sites need to be developed as high density housing, likely in the form of tower blocks. This, greenbelt defenders argue, should be the pursued course until all usable brownfield sites have been occupied. As such, laws would need to be in place to force developers to use the land. Unfortunately, the downside would be reduced profits, since brownfield sites would immediately become more expensive to acquire and develop.