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Debating housing in the Green Belt

Debating housing in the Green Belt Photo: © CPRE

This week’s debate on Green Belt hosted by the RTPI at Oxford Brookes University was definitely a belter.

The panel comprised strategic planningmatt thomson blog and infrastructure expert Professor Tim Marshall, unreconstructed free-marketeer and author of the challenging Adam Smith Institute paper ‘The Green Noose’ Tom Papworth, general planning pontificator and Wolfson Prize-winning urbanist Urbed’s Nick Falk, and CPRE’s own head of planning, me. It was fair and balanced debate, chaired by Oxford University academic Professor Danny Dorling, in front of a packed main lecture theatre.

No doubt the RTPI will report on the discussion in full, but I just wanted to just pick up on a small ‘storm’ on Twitter that arose from a comment I made in the debate that was taken out of context, and has generated a certain amount of interest in cyberspace.

I was reported by Sam Stafford, strategic land director at volume house builder Barratts, as saying “People aspire to own a home, but people also aspire to own a yacht and we don't talk about a yachting crisis.”

That would, of course, be a terrible thing to say. I am slightly embarrassed, I have to say, that something I said could be edited in such a way as to convey almost exactly the opposite of what I actually meant, and I certainly did not mean to trivialise the challenges of the housing crisis. If that is what I said, or what people in the room thought I had meant to say, then it is so ridiculous that I am sure it would have been picked up on, and I would immediately have been challenged on it there and then, in the room, rather than later on, out of context, in the twittersphere.

But the truth of the matter is that we were talking about whether building homes in the Green Belt would actually impact on housing affordability, and the point had been made that no, it wouldn’t, because what tends to be built on the types of housing estates that are typical of peri-urban developments are large, often detached, houses with gardens, which remain unaffordable to the people whose housing need has been used to justify the development in the first place.

Tom Papworth argued that because most people aspire to own a detached house with a garden, then it was perfectly reasonable to build as many of such properties in the Green Belt as would be sufficient in order for a detached house with a garden to be affordable for anyone who aspires to one.

This struck me as such palpable nonsense that I had to make a strong statement that clearly differentiated between housing need, which is what we need to address most urgently in order to resolve the housing crisis, and housing aspirations, which are potentially limitless. And that is the context in which I made my statement.

The point being that many of us aspire to things we can’t afford: fast cars, foreign holidays, designer clothes, second homes in Tuscany, and so on, but we recognise that we have to live within our means, and we settle for making the best of what we can afford. We can’t all afford an Italian supercar, but we don’t expect Ferrari to make them in such numbers as to bring their sales price down to that of a Fiat 500, so we settle for a Fiat 500, and a second-hand one will do fine, thanks very much.

Similarly, we can’t all afford a detached house with a garden, especially not one exactly where we would want it to be. And here’s the rub: we never could. Even when we didn’t have a planning system, and even before the creation of the Green Belt - at whose door all the ills of society seem to be laid by its critics - the vast majority of people were priced out of the vaguest hope of being able to even think about buying any kind of home, let alone a detached one with a garden.

Providing enough detached houses with gardens to meet every family’s pipe dream would have extraordinarily damaging consequences, not only for the countryside but also for the environment as a whole, as well as for people’s health and the types of communities they live in. It would lead to the kind of endless suburbia that typifies many parts of North America, for example, which, as was revealed earlier this year in research carried out by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute and LSECities, costs the US economy over $1 trillion (that’s a thousand billion, or a million million) every year.

Of course, if housebuilders got on with expediently building all the hundreds of thousands of homes - including detached houses with gardens - that they already have planning permission for, rather than drip-feeding them slowly into the market at a rate that keeps house prices in the area artificially high – as I pointed out to a clearly disgruntled Sam Stafford later on to cheers and applause – then perhaps we would be closer to resolving the housing crisis than we are at the moment.

Find out more

Listen to the podcast interviews recorded after the event on the RTPI website

View Matt's profile


housing need... is what we need to address most urgently in order to resolve the housing crisis

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