The truth is if we’re going to deliver 300,000 homes a year, we’ll have to look some areas of green belt that are of poorer quality
It’s that time of year when the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) publishes its “State of the Green Belt” report - a scaremongering look at the number of homes that have been built - or are expected to be built - on the nation’s green belt.
We know its scaremongering because the Ministry for Homes, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) took the unusual step of responding to this type of report, describing it as “misleading.”
Yet the CPRE’s claims were widely reported nevertheless, so it still deserves a proper look - starting with CPRE’s agenda.
CPRE must be one of the most successful pressure groups of all time. From the beginning, formed by planning-colossus Sir Patrick Abercrombie in 1926, CPRE aimed to limit urban sprawl and campaigned for the establishment of green belts.
Their campaigning was instrumental in establishing the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act - the bedrock of our planning system to this day. CPRE was also instrumental in the brownfield-first approach to development that was enshrined in Planning Policy Guidance Note 3 (PPG 3) in 1992, and its influence can still be seen in the debate around housing delivery. “We invented all the key planks in PPG 3. PPG 3 is basically CPRE policy,” claimed one of its policy officers. It has been successful in its objective too - according to CPRE, the number of homes built in the green belt is around a third lower than it would have been without that policy restriction. It’s no wonder that John Myers, leader of the pro-housing London YIMBY group, even described CPRE as the British equivalent of America’s National Rifle Association.
It’s fair to say that the CPRE isn’t exactly an unbiased arbiter of truth.
This year’s report highlights two key concerns: that too few of the homes delivered in the green belt are affordable; and that the green belt is being lost at an alarming rate.
The affordability point - which leads its latest press release - rests on the fact that only 13% of homes delivered on sites removed from the green belt since 2015/16 were delivered as affordable housing.
CPRE neglects to point out that, this, of course, has nothing to do with the previous designation of the land and everything to do with the planning policies in place in those boroughs.
As only 804 homes were delivered on former green belt sites in total, it is also far from a significant sample size.
Finally, the rates of affordable housing delivery on any development varies from year to year depending on where homes are located on site. It is not uncommon for lower rates of affordable housing to be delivered in the early stages of large sites — to be made up later — to help ease the cash flow burden of delivering the necessary infrastructure.
The report also reveals that 27% of the homes consented on those sites removed from the green belt are to be affordable, while the average policy requirement on emerging sites is for 34% affordable housing - facts which perhaps paint a more accurate picture of what is going on.
If the CPRE’s complaint about affordability doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, their arguments about the amount of green belt being lost are little better.
CPRE points out that advanced local plans propose to release enough green belt to deliver more than 266,000 homes - that seems a big number, but it represents a little under one year’s supply against the government’s target of 300,000 homes a year.
When local plans are supposed to allocate enough land to meet housing needs for at least 15 years, it actually seems a rather modest number.
In the context of the green belt overall, it’s even more modest. There is actually 24,500 ha more green belt now than in 1997 - enough to provide around 35,000 football pitches - and while some is being lost, if the average rate of loss experienced over the last five years were to continue, it would take 1,000 years for the green belt to be used up.
Predictably, CPRE’s solution to stop their alleged ‘destruction’ of the green belt is to reinstate the brownfield-first policy that they successfully managed to have incorporated into PPG3. Nobody would claim we shouldn’t be trying to make the best use possible of available brownfield land, but the hard fact is there isn’t enough of it.
Using CPRE’s own figures, there is enough deliverable brownfield land to meet housing need for the next two years. Interestingly, given its claims that developers simply don’t want to build on brownfield sites, nearly 85% of it already has planning permission.
The truth is if we’re going to deliver 300,000 homes a year, we’ll have to look some areas of green belt that are of poorer quality or close to transport infrastructure, such as railway stations.
If the CPRE was serious about trying to proffer solutions to the housing shortage, it would be suggesting how we can best identify areas of green belt that can be developed with minimal harm - but they aren’t really interested in that.
Their focus is protecting the equity in the homes of their members - that’s why their report makes not a single mention of green belt being released for office or commercial development.
Paul Smith is managing director at Strategic Land Group