With house prices on the rise and far fewer homes being built than the estimated 345,000 per year that are needed, there is no denying that the UK is currently facing a housing crisis, nor that housing remains a particular weak point for the Conservative Party.
Polling conducted by our team at Redfield & Wilton Strategies consistently finds housing is the policy area that provokes the greatest degree of disapproval of the Government’s performance. Boris Johnson has sought to remedy this problem by setting a target to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid–2020s, but the question of where these houses will be built looms large.
Green belts – protected areas of open land encircling many British cities – are increasingly being pointed to as a possible solution. According to the London Green Belt Council, the number of London green belt sites designated for housing in Local Plans has risen by 211 per cent between 2016 and 2021, with over 200,000 new houses currently being planned. But those who believe the solution to the housing shortage lies in green belts would be wise to look elsewhere.
Brits love their green belts, and any attempts to develop on them are destined to be fiercely opposed. Our new polling finds that, among respondents who are familiar with the concept, 90 per cent approve of the existence of green belts around British cities, while a mere 1 per cent disapprove. Few topics invite such an overwhelming consensus across age groups, regions, and political persuasions.
The central purpose of green belts is to prevent urban sprawl, but their benefits extend much further. Most of the land is used for agriculture, recreation, and sport, with ecosystems that improve air quality and protect against floods. Of course, the benefits aren’t all in one direction: the protected status of green belts can mean that biodiverse parts of urban centres, like parks, are built over instead. But it’s clear that Brits see the green belt as something worth protecting.
Our polling finds three–quarters of Britons familiar with green belts believe that the rules on building houses in green belts should remain “strict”, even if this strictness is at the expense of building more affordable houses in British cities. Only a fifth of respondents think that rules on building houses in green belts should be “relaxed” so that more affordable houses can be built in British cities, even if this relaxation is at the expense of the environment.
In reality, there does not need to be an exclusive dichotomy between either ‘preserving green belts’ or ‘building affordable housing’ – there must be a solution in which both can be achieved.
Building genuinely affordable housing on brownfield sites (previously developed land that is no longer in use) could be the solution. Despite persistent calls for a “brownfield first” approach, brownfield sites across the nation remain vacant. Research by the Countryside Charity into Local Planning Authorities’ registries has identified a capacity for over one million homes to be built on brownfield land in England. Much of this is located within cities, providing short commute times and eliminating the need to construct costly supporting infrastructure—benefiting homeowners, the Government, and the environment.
For developers, brownfield land is typically a less attractive option due to the burden of clearing existing structures and the risk that the land will be contaminated. Because green land often allows for lower development costs, greater flexibility, and more visually appealing surroundings, it is only natural that companies would prefer to build there, which is why it is necessary that the Government steps in to incentivise building on brownfield land instead. A cash boost by the Treasury of £1.8 billion, set to be announced in the Budget, should help.
Constructing on green belts may be the most convenient option for developers, but the political consequences of allowing this change would be immense for local and national politicians. Indeed, Conservative Party co–chairman Amanda Milling blamed the party’s defeat in June’s Chesham and Amersham by–election on the Government’s controversial Planning Bill, which seeks to expedite approval for housing projects.
In order for the Johnson Government to address the UK’s housing shortage and improve public perception of the Conservative Party’s housing record, inventive solutions that centre on Britons’ needs are required—and destroying the nation’s green belts is not one of them. As the Government seeks to signal its commitment to combating climate change at the upcoming Cop26 climate conference, it should recognise that protecting natural spaces and their inherent environmental benefits are vital to this mission.