Climax City

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Should we loosen our green belts?

On 13th November 2013, I took part in a debate organised by Liverpool University in its ‘Policy Provocations’ series. The question was should we loosen our green belts? This is the text of my initial five minute statement….

Back in 1998 URBED wrote a report for Friends of the Earth. It was published exactly a hundred years after Ebenezer Howard published the first edition of his book. This was later to be republished as ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ but the first edition had a more radical title; ‘Tomorrow: A peaceful path to real reform’. A combination of hubris and cheek caused us to call our report Tomorrow: A peaceful path to urban reform, something that really annoyed the Town and Country Planning Association.

However what upset them more was the subtitle – The feasibility of accommodating 75% of new homes in urban areas’. At the time the TCPA were not alone in believing that ‘forcing’ people to live in cities almost amounted to a breach of their human rights. Government policy at the time was that 60% of new homes should be built on brownfield land within urban areas (a target that had almost been met when we were working on our report). We forget that this policy was introduced by a Conservative Minister, John Selwyn-Gummer and opposed by his then Labour shadow Nick Raynsford. Labour were worried about housing being foisted on ‘their’ people in cities leading to town cramming – a response that may have made some sense when viewed from inner London but made none whatsoever in cities like Liverpool that had lost half of its population and was suffering terribly as a consequence.

It will come as no surprise to hear that our report for FoE did find that it was possible to accommodate 75% of housing growth in urban areas. Indeed soon after we finished it we got a call from Government to help them write a methodology based on our research to allow local authorities to measure the capacity of their urban areas.

Ten years later we looked again at the figures and found that in 2007, the year before the credit crunch, the percentage of housing built in urban areas had in fact exceeded 75% while the density of new housing had increased from 23 to 43 units per hectare. What is more, the capacity of urban areas to absorb new housing, far from being used up as had been predicted, seemed almost to be a renewable resource. For every acre brownfield land developed another had been created. If people say this evening that there is not capacity within Liverpool to built the homes it needs they are wrong. Having been written off as radicals and extremists at the time of the Tomorrow report we felt vindicated.

There is however a ‘but’. While housing output rose through the 2000s peaking at just below 220,000 homes in 2007 this was still less than the country needed. What is more, in that year for the first time the number of apartments built exceeded the number of homes. In many respects this was a good thing and heralded an age of urban living that has transformed our city centres. However it also had a dark side as crap, buy-to-let units were built as investments and never actually to be lived-in.  Policy had effectively choked-off Greenfield housing, forcing housebuilders into the uncertain territory of urban renewal, public private partnership and brownfield land – which they weren’t comfortable with, was more difficult and made less profit. So they focussed their efforts on city centre apartments contributing to the housing bubble. It is therefore no surprise that the crash in the apartment market has seen the number of new homes plummet to under 120,000 last year.

We need to do something about this and the easy option is to loosen the green belt. Give housebuilders what they want, unleash the constraints, and housing numbers will rise. However before we do that let us think for a moment.  The impact of the policies of the 2000s on cities like Liverpool has been transformative. There remains much to be done, but the city is far more lively, busy and successful that it was when all of its new housing was being built in its far-flung suburbs. A radical loosening of green belt policy puts all of this at risk. We will need to consider the planned development of greenfield land, (even our radical Tomorrow report conceded this) but this needs to happen alongside moves to bring back the apartment market in a more considered way and to maintain levels of brownfield building within cities.

When we were working on the Tomorrow report we had arguments with Friends of the Earth about the loss of countryside. To us it wasn’t the main issue. Only around 11% of England’s land area is urbanised and much of the land on the periphery of cities is pretty poor quality. Our concern about loosening the greenbelt is its impact on cities and their sustainability. Allow cities to sprawl and their urban cores will decline, allow this to go unchecked and you risk ending up like Detroit. You risk ending up with a car dependent society, based in sole-less suburbs much as we did at the end of the 1980s. My fear is that the careful balancing act required is beyond policy-makers and that a knee-jerk response to the housing numbers risks undermine the renaissance of our cities.

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