UK land planning reform is a battle of tough choices.
Clearly, greenbelt and other open lands in England are among its greatest assets. But raw land development might be a smart answer to the housing crisis.
All over the developed, industrialised world there is a somewhat civilised form of conflict over land use. Everyone agrees a rational approach should be used to accommodate the increasing population – perhaps even more so in the UK, where population is growing faster than in most of the Eurozone – but that rationality takes a different form when sacred areas such as open land and greenbelts are targeted for development.
The unique characteristics of land planning and housing shortages in England and Wales, in particular, foster a particularly heated battle. In one corner are the preservationists – The Campaign to Protect Rural England, in particular – who largely consider maintaining the absolute sanctity of greenbelts and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty as their mission. These tracts of land were created to bring a quality of life to the country; any compromise thereof is considered a betrayal of the intent of the founders of these movements.
Resistance by these groups to development does not stop with housing. Commercial construction, mineral extraction and even wind farms face opposition. Even those who publicly laud the economic benefits of each of these things will adopt a NIMBY (not in my back yard) posture when it affects their own town or neighbourhood.
The other side of this battle might be considered the pragmatists, those who view the country’s pressing housing needs as reason enough to rethink and revise the use of such lands. Homebuilders and developers (including those working with managers of property funds), of course, are a driving force in this debate, following an obvious economic interest. But so too are affordable and social housing advocates, who argue that limitations on all building is driving the exorbitant cost of housing at the lower end of the economic spectrum. The poor and working classes are increasingly burdened with little space even while an increasing portion of their income is consumed by rent. Affordability for buying is dropping, as a full 20 per cent of housing now being built is for the to-let market, up considerably since 2000.
The adoption of the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012 was heralded as a means to simplify procedures and encourage acceleration in development, replacing a difficult, time-consuming and not always rational system. In outlining the Framework, Minister for Planning Greg Clark, MP stated several priorities for land use in the UK:
• Encourage economic competitiveness
• Ensure town centre vitality
• Promote a prosperous rural economy
• Drive sustainable transport
• Push for high quality communications infrastructure
• Offer broad choices in quality homes
• Foster good design
• Create healthy communities
• Provide greenbelt land protection
• Meet the challenges of flooding and coastal change and climate change
• Conserve and enhance natural and historical environments
• Insist on sustainable use of minerals
Specifically under green belt land protection, the plan says the Government “attaches great importance” to them, honouring the fundamental goal of preventing urban sprawl. “The essential characteristics of green belts are their openness and their permanence,” it states. It also prioritises “the recycling of derelict and other urban land.”
At the end of the analyses, the complexity of the problem suggests a complex solution – some open lands might be worth sacrificing to achieve social goods, while other areas absolutely must be protected.
Strategic land investment in development needs to be sensitive to all these needs. In parallel, they need to answer to the dictates of responsible asset management. Would-be investors should always balance their real estate investments with their social conscience as well as their financial risk tolerance, ideally with the counsel of an independent financial advisor.