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New Houses On Green Belt Land: A Trend For 2016?

By Author: Bradley Weiss
Total Articles: 156

Distinctions between green spaces that have aesthetic and environmental benefits from those that don’t should be part of the discussion.

Giving a new twist to an old controversy, Chancellor George Osborne is striving to build 400,000 homes in the UK by 2020. And it appears likely that some green belts may well be the land on which those homes - including the so-called starter homes, priced at £250,000 or less (outside London) and sold to people under age 40 – will be built.

The need is great and the homebuilding industry has said for quite some time it’s green belt land that needs to be freed up for development. As Britain strives to catch up on a million homes’ deficit to serve its growing population, UK land investment groups search for places where disused hectares might be developed into housing. But resistance to developing on the official green belts that encircle dozens of cities and towns has been fierce for decades.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England is perhaps the loudest voice in the resistance. Paul Minder, the CPRE’s planning campaign manager spoke with a reporter from the Daily Telegraph about these opposing needs, more houses versus environmental considerations: “The current policy isn’t working,” he acknowledges. “But these proposals will make things worse. It could see a lot more planning battles in the countryside over coming years.”

Indeed, the argument for rethinking the sanctity of green belts is about more than what the homebuilders want. Shelter.org, the housing charity, argues for a reasonable swap of greenbelt lands, particularly those near transport stations, for parkland swaps inside cities. This would enable lower-cost home building that would ultimately trickle-down to greater affordability for all social classes. At the same time, those swaps can bring vegetated spaces inside cities where perhaps more citizens would have visual and physical exposure to green spaces and the quality of life benefits they provide.

There are 14 green belts in England, covering approximately 13% of the country’s total land. Since the Localism Act 2011 was implemented, more local planning authorities have opted to use green belt areas for development. The National Planning Policy Framework requires each council to have formal five-year plans for development.

Other voices include the Adam Smith Institute’s Tom Papworth. His paper, “The Green Noose,” takes a more critical view (as the name implies) of the green belts, explaining there is a “welfare cost” in terms of smaller houses, house price volatility and a higher cost of living due to this “noose.” This argument roughly parallels what Shelter says. Papworth says that intensive agricultural use of green belts fail to meet their claimed purpose and environmental value, a point on which many environmentalists would agree (an organisation, the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, argues for more species-friendly methods that would also allow fewer chemical runoffs to streams and rivers, sharing this critical view that industrialised farming is undesirable).

A professor from the London School of Economics, Paul Cheshire, urges broader thinking on the green vs. growth equation. He told the BBC “You only need a tiny amount of the least environmentally-attractive green belt to solve the housing land shortage for generations to come.” Instead of treating green belts as untouchable, he favours the preservation of lands that are designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks.

When alternative investment funds search for ways to turn land into homes, farmland and other green space– not necessarily green belts – are routinely considered. Building on green belts is already happening: the BBC reported in 2015 that planning permissions were granted in 2014-2015 for the construction of almost 12,000 homes, up from just 2,258 homes in 2009-2010.

Choosing to put any kind of money into housing development is on the minds of individual and institutional investors alike. But clearly there are variables and controversies that need to be negotiated. For individuals in particular, the advice of an independent financial advisor is highly recommended.

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