When Buildings Are Better Than Open Land

The need for UK housing is challenging the greenbelts and rural lands.

Britain’s natural beauty is indeed one of its greatest assets. But a critical need for housing is forcing a discussion on the sacrosanct nature of open lands.

A primary point of debate around the UK’s critical housing shortage is whether or not to build on greenbelts and the open countryside beyond, typically agricultural and forested areas. The argument often boils down to a two-dimensional, either/or choice between increasing density in towns versus building outside the metropolitan areas, accepting a certain degree of American-style sprawl that loses forever some of the best characteristics of the country.

But in truth, the choices need not be quite so distinct. Neither side of this argument has to count themselves winners or losers, as more hybrid approaches can be considered – and in fact are already being implemented on a limited scale. This is not just wishful thinking. Research indicates that there are many choices that allow for different means of expanding land availability to the single goal of increasing the supply of housing.

Considering how investors in the development of strategic land have land investment funds ready to go to work, this is a topic that needs creative thinking. The housing need is great, and developers and homebuilders are also raring to go. The question is, where can they build?

The greenbelt concept, first implemented in the 1930s, was remarkably prescient in what it sought to achieve. While other countries (in particular the United States) were expanding their metropolitan regions far from core cities – allowing automobiles to become the primary means of individual transport, enabling middle class workers to have larger homes and gardens while they commuted to downtown employment – cities such as London, Cambridge, Nottingham, Bristol, Dorset, West Midlands, and on the Continent (Germany in particular), preserved their dense and compact downtowns with designated greenbelts.

The vision of what greenbelts should be is a region of land enveloping the cities that democratically provide recreation and fresh air to the populace. For the most part, that is what was created. The more densely populated cities of the UK keep people closer to workplaces, stores and community amenities, much of it accessible by foot, public transport or bicycle. Conversely, those sprawling suburbs in the States mean that workers spend onerous stretches of time in traffic, traversing 8-lanes-wide of asphalt from one suburb to the next, leaving little time to enjoy those larger houses and gardens.

The British have a distinct love for greenbelts and in fact have added about 25,000 hectares to the 14 greenbelts in the country since 1997. Local authorities have further plans to increase various greenbelt lands by 12,000 hectares in the future.

But while greenbelts have largely succeeded in their initial goals, they face increasing scrutiny largely because of the housing shortage. The policy is attacked for being too rigid. Also, greenbelts don’t always achieve the intended goals of preserving environmental quality as they are poorly managed in some locales. Among those who criticise the current configuration of greenbelts are the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), which decades ago had championed their existence. Since 2002, the TCPA has suggested the greenbelts instead be broken into wedges, gaps and corridors, largely in response to the housing needs.

Baroness Hanham, communities minister in the House of Lords, is critical of absolute policies that protect greenbelts as sacrosanct. She is quoted as advocating for more rural development, so people “can live in the villages in which they were born,” as well as for social housing because some of the land is “not absolutely brilliant” and therefore would be put to better use as sorely needed housing.

For example, an abandoned powerhouse in Formby (Borough of Sefton, Merseyside) sits in greenbelt land. A draw to vandals, it is regarded as an eyesore yet a proposed 62-home development (10 per cent dedicated to affordable housing) is encountering resistance from a community group. The development would require some additional use of greenbelt land, but would also put derelict land into productive use. Should the old building continue to stand and deteriorate, or would it be better to build sensibly and add community infrastructure improvements along with it?

Of note, development of any housing on raw, open lands need not favour social housing over more expensive private homes – or vice versa. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), which advocates for affordable housing, looked at eleven countries that are similar to England in how they approach land supply, including restrictions on sprawl and protection of agricultural land. The Foundation concludes that a more sophisticated, layered approach to growth management, “rather than urban containment,” should be considered.

JRF also argues for proactive planning, such as compulsory purchase, because the current housing approach is often incoherent. As an advocate for social and affordable housing, the organization also champions land auctions and land assembly as a means to effect sound development.

Private and institutional investors increasingly are interested in building new housing, both to buy and to-let, wherever such development fits into town growth strategies. Strategic land advisors who engage real asset funds to build are typically cognizant of those town strategies. Clearly, the questions around greenbelts and raw land have to be answered in many areas where development is needed.

With investors ready to build, such conversations and decisions are being pushed forward, making these kinds of debates more likely in the future as more capital is freed up to build much-needed homes. Individuals who invest in development that requires planning permission should consider whether strong opposition exists in that planning authority; they should also discuss such investments with an independent financial advisor who can determine if the risks and rewards of property development fit the portfolio of the investor.

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