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Green belt scaremongering obscures a housing shortage that is truly frightening

Tackling the largest housing shortfall starts with a single brick. David Davies/PA

We all know we have a crisis of housing supply and affordability. Over the past four years we have built on average 110,000 homes a year in England, less than the 150,000 homes built 110 years ago in 1904.

Against this sorry state of affairs appears the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s report entitled Community Control or Countryside Chaos?, purporting to reveal the shocking effects of the National Planning Policy Framework two years after its introduction.

Like a 17th century tract on how to detect witches, the report’s authors warn us to beware the rapacious developers laying waste the countryside. Examples include a case study of 11 “villages under siege” – stories compiled by local witchfinders – and an account of 58 planning appeals, of which about a third (19) were refused (a not unusual amount) but 39 were allowed. This – which if all were built would total only 8,705 houses – is presented as clear evidence of a conspiracy to concrete over our sacred turf.

Another claim, from a study of Local Plans, is that they contain “proposals for more than 700,000” houses built on open countryside. The evidence for this – a survey put together by local CPRE membership groups – reveals an altogether less encouraging picture. Less encouraging, that is, if one hopes ever to build in coming years an even passable number of houses in places where people want and need to live if they are to have access to jobs.

Claims lead up a garden path

The survey makes no distinction between green belt (designated development-protected areas around cities designed to contain them) and greenfield (any land not yet built on). This might be sensible given that so much of greenbelt land is used for intensive agriculture, which provides no environmental benefits or amenity value at all, not least since there is virtually no public access.

However the survey of local plans, many still pending approval, looks at potential sites identified for the next 16 years to 2030. If we were very successful we might aspire to build double our current rate, an average of 200,000 houses a year to 2030. In 2009 the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit estimated that we needed to build about 260,000 a year if we hoped even to restore housing affordability to the levels of 2000, so our aspirational and wholly unlikely target of 200,000 homes a year for 16 years – 3.2m homes – would not be enough.

If just 700,000 of those 3.2m were on greenfield land, as the CPRE report suggests, that would imply almost 80% were on brownfield sites. That would not only substantially exceed the now-dropped national target of 60%, it would also be neither feasible nor desirable. One aspect of brownfield sites, apart from the additional cost to develop them, is that they tend not to be where the jobs are. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s housebuilding tables, twice as many houses have been built in declining, post-industrial Barnsley and Doncaster than in Oxford and Cambridge where there is housing demand and jobs.

So the proposed modest expansion of Cambridge into greenfield and perhaps even a corner of its green belt is a positive. Since 74% of the Cambridge green belt is used for intensive farming, these plans would represent a substantial improvement in biodiversity, economic efficiency, and in equity. People who previously had been priced out of the Cambridge housing markets and unable to access the jobs there may be able to live and work there.

A manufactured problem

The real problem is how febrile imaginings are turned into frightening falsehoods. The CPRE report brims with photographs of bucolic villages bearing captions such as “Developers are being allowed to build on greenfield sites”, or of an excavator in an anonymous site captioned “Development pressure is growing on the edge of many villages” (note the weasel word “many”).

There is an illustration of a beautiful section of the Devon coastal path below a story that builder Persimmon is “calling for” 257 houses “on a greenfield site on the edge of Sidmouth” (so, not the site depicted) and “the village of Feniton has been targeted by speculators seeking housing developments”. Again, and in each case, the area presented, beautiful and deserving of protection, is under no threat at all.

A close reading of the survey from which the report reaches its total of 700,000 houses proposed for greenfield/green belt sites over the next 16 years shows it comes with all sorts of caveats. “Proposal of 20,230 houses met many objections”; “full numbers not available”; “local reports – no numbers specified”; “no allocations at present”. But in each such case a figure – 20,230, 9,100, whatever – is inserted.

Thus even the very low total of 700,000 houses over 16 years, or 43,750 a year, is not documented as a set of proposals. It is essentially a scarenumber. In fact for a 16-year period it seems not worryingly large, but in fact too small to be credible. As is well known only a small fraction of proposed or rumoured houses are ever built, and even if every one of them was, it would still represent only a tiny inroad into our housing shortfall.

Looking at what has been actually built since 1969 (table 209) is depressing. Between 1969-1989 we built 4,302,270 houses in England, but between 1994-2012 it was only 2,687,040, fewer by more than 1.6m. In order to restore housing supply and affordability, according to the NHPAU analysis, would require 4,940,000 houses in a 19-year period, 2,252,960 more than were built between 1994-2012. So we have a building deficit of between 1.6-2.3m houses to make up even before we start to cater for future growth in demand.

The real lie of the land

Some facts, then, rather than alarmist rumours: according to DCLG, planning applications for the last quarter of 2013 were close to the lowest since 2003, only about two thirds of the average between 2003 and the financial crisis in 2008. Approvals were not quite so dire, but still only at about 70% of 2003-2005 levels.

The numbers of housebuilding starts are even less encouraging, given the housing shortfall. In successive booms we have managed to build ever fewer houses : 287,310 in 1969/70, 219,950 in 1988/89, and 183,360 in 2005/06. In the most recent data for 2012/13 it was only 107,820, below even the level of the post crisis trough.

The real scandal is not the houses it is rumoured we might be planning on greenfield sites, but the actual number we are failing to build in the here and now – and, it would appear, in the foreseeable future, unless adequate land can be freed up to tackle the housing crisis.

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