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The Surprising Environmental Cost Of The Uk Housing Shortage

By Author: Chris Westerman
Total Articles: 133

Older homes run less efficiently than newer ones. But perhaps the very reasons there are fewer homes than needed place stresses on the English environment as well.

A widespread debate rages in the UK over a contributing factor to the housing shortage. Pundits and politicians alike, as well as a healthy dose of xenophobes, place blame for the lack of housing (and the high price of both buying and renting) on the high rates of immigration.

Civitas, the independent, right-leaning think tank also known as the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, claims that net migration at above 200,000 people per year, will lead to economic and environmental breakdown. Cambridge University economist Robert Rowthorn comments on a Civitas report in 2014, saying that "unrestrained population growth would eventually have a negative impact on the standard of living through its environmental effects such as overcrowding, congestion and loss of amenity." The report further concludes that water rationing could result, while schools, hospitals and transport infrastructure would also suffer from being overburdened.

Others counter that those modern ills as described have other causes, and that the net effect of immigration is it reinvigorates an economy. What planners, builders and investors - such as managers of real asset funds, the funding behind much of house building today - need to consider is how satisfying the need for housing might impact the environment, good or bad.

An argument can be made that the housing shortage and anti-growth housing policies have a deleterious effect on the environment. That happens in a number of ways.

As families double up by generations in older homes, they use heat, electricity and water with lower standards of efficiency. Newer homes are being built with much more energy-saving methods and mechanicals that they measurably reduce resource consumption.

Greenbelt lands, thought to be a plus for green living, can in fact be damaging. Intensive, chemically dependent agriculture has heavily replaced the organic methods of the past. Also, golf courses that use copious amounts of water and chemical fertilizers qualify as greenbelt uses when clearly they limit biodiversity and add pollutants to watershed runoff.

Professor Paul Cheshire, professor emeritus of economic geography at the London School of Economics and a researcher at the Spatial Economics Research Centre, conducted a study on greenbelt land use and how it affects where homes are built. He concludes, "Policy has been actively preventing houses from being built where they are most needed or most wanted…since our planning system prevents housing competing, land for golf courses stays very cheap. More of Surrey is now under golf courses - about 2.65 per cent - than has houses on it."

Cheshire goes on to suggest that these over-farmed, over-golfed lands should instead be converted to housing while a renewed interest in truly accessible, environmentally valuable hectares will more authentically be created and managed. Such development would lead to better quality housing and allow workers to live closer to their places of employment - reducing their times commuting and therefore their carbon emissions. Commuters in Oxford, London, Birmingham and Edinburgh spend more than four hours per week in their cars, on average.

Shelter, the housing charity, issued a policy briefing titled "Delivering environmentally sustainable housing growth" back in 2007 that shared Cheshire's sentiments on the actual environmental quality of greenbelt land being suspect. The organisation stands for responsible development in greenbelts, when and where essential to meeting local housing needs.

Homebuilders who work with UK land investment groups often identify greenfield sites that can serve the purposes to which Cheshire refers. Market-driven, they must meet increasingly stringent sustainability codes that enhance communities overall. Individuals who consider participating in such ventures should discuss it first with an independent financial advisor who can examine the specific investment as well as how it relates to the investor’s individual risk profile.

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