The GROWING Problem OF The Greenbelt, The 'BUILD ON BROWNFIELD SITES' MYTH and How to solve London's housing crisis ?
The surface area of the United Kingdom which is is covered by almost 6% of built development (which includes airports, roads, retail, industrial and all other surfaced or developed areas. A further 3% is classed as gardens and urban parks (BBC survey data).
The Greenbelt in 2019 was estimated as being 1,621,150 hectares of land which is about 12.4% of the total area.
TWICE as much land is classified as Greenbelt than existing developed land and yet most of that Greenbelt is located around our most prosperous and sought-after towns like London, Oxford and Cambridge.
These are exactly the places where people wish to live and work. And the sad fact is that some of the Greenbelt land which could solve the housing crisis if it were to be developed is actually intensively farmed land or poor quality land.
Another myth is if we cannot build on Greenbelt land then we should build new homes on brownfield sites. There are still plenty of brownfield sites in some of the old traditional industrial towns located in the Midlands or North of England and in less accessible areas of the country but again, this is not where the work is and not where people wish to live.
The old garages, tyre centres, industrial fasteners, timber yards, dilapidated snooker halls, slaughterhouses and industrial premises which were once a feature of our towns and cities have now been re-developed for the wave of cheap Aldi, Lidl and discount stores, failing that then the specialist retirement market has hoovered up the remainder.
There are NO brownfield sites left in the locations where demand for new housing is at its highest.
After the economic recession of 2008-2020, the Grenfell Tower disaster and more recently Coronavirus potential house owners are seeking traditional houses with a garden and garage (if not to use for the car then for a 'home office') - this takes LAND and lots of it.
There simply is not the available space, opportunity or availability of land for this type of development in many of the cities and larger towns so the new houses have to be built on the outskirts - often required exactly where the Greenbelt has been allocated.
Of course there is a solution which surprisingly, a Labour Government tried to introduce and would have worked if they had properly incentivised the scheme. This was know as the 'Flat Conversion Allowance' and was introduced in the Finance Act in 2001 but take-up has been poor.
If the property owners of retail buildings in (e.g.) anywhere from London, Birmingham, Cheltenham to Swansea were properly incentivised through council tax relief, serious government grants and even some attractive tax breaks, then this could witness a revolution in the number of new homes created in cities - safe (they are often only 2-3 storey so no high storey fire risk issues), larger (older buildings are usually more generous with room sizes) and excellently located for local services and green commutes to workplaces.
A social benefit of this approach would be for new, vibrant communities to re-inhabit our city centres, invigorating the local shopping and community facilities and ensuring that their neighbourhoods were more connected and secure.
An idyllic vision which will be unlikely to see fruition - and just for the record not all former Debenhams, BHS and John Lewis stores can be easily converted to apartments. Some can but most are just not in play for the planners and developers.
The whole idea of 're-developing' city or town centres is sadly flawed unless there is a huge change in how homeowners wish to live and how Councils and Government resource, incentivise and fund such a change.
The Greenbelt remains and will continue to remain the battleground for some time to come.