Comment: The green belt and the housing crisis

By Tim Leunig

The Nimbys are out again. The Daily Telegraph is outraged. Apparently the government wants to destroy the green belt by allowing houses on an area the size of Slough. Slough! That massive global metropolis! Wow, it’s the – err – 306th largest place in Britain!

Let us get serious for a moment. Let us take these reports at face value and assume that the government really does want to reduce the green belt by an area equivalent to Slough. Slough really isn't that large. There are only 20 councils in Britain with a smaller area than Slough, and one of them is the Scilly Isles.

Imagine an area of green belt countryside the size of a tennis court. These plans mean we would lose 7 inches by 7 inches of that tennis court. That is all. Or to put it another way if we have a green belt area the size of 7,500 tennis courts, we will build one house. That’s it. One house per 7,500 tennis courts worth of countryside. That is the "threat" to our countryside.

Of course some parts of the countryside are precious, and should be pretty much preserved in aspic. But the idea that we cannot find a space in 7,500 tennis courts worth of countryside to build one house is nonsense.

The reality is that Britain is short of housing. That is the root cause of high house prices that make life such a struggle for so many people.

We have three choices. The first is to ignore the problem and hope it will go away. That has been the policy for the last 20 years, and it hasn't worked. All it has given us is a house price boom that has made some rich, and a housing shortage that has made many other people very poor indeed.

Or we can build up. We could become a nation of flat dwellers and skyscrapers. Presumably this is the vision of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, whose initials coincidentally spell “Cramming People in the Remainder of England". This would allow us to preserve every tennis court sized piece of countryside in Britain, but at what price? The reality is that most people, particularly those with children, prefer to live in a house with a garden. That seems a reasonable aspiration to me.

Or we can build out. No one is suggesting for a moment that we should be like Los Angeles. Low-density American suburbs are bad for communities and bad for the environment. But typical British suburban and small town densities, whether from the 1900s or more recently, offer a good combination of decent homes, decent communities and a reasonable carbon footprint.

The depressing thing about all of this is not rural campaigners' shrill reaction. The depressing thing about all of this is that building on one tennis court out of 7,500 is seen as a brave and ambitious target.

The reality is that such a plan is a small drop in the ocean compared with what is needed. In the last two years alone Britain has built around 300,000 fewer homes than the number of new households. Over the last 20 years, we have built around two million too few homes for the growth in population and household numbers. Building 80,000 new homes is welcome, but we need to be doing this every three months, not as a one-off.

At present 87% of England is undeveloped green space. In addition there are lakes and rivers, urban parks and back gardens. Would it really be the end of the world if we reduced this figure to 86%, and used the extra one per cent for some more houses, urban parks and back gardens? That 1% would be sufficient to allow us to build the 2 million new homes we need.

The 1980s BBC comedy programme, "Sorry!" starred Ronnie Corbett as a 41-year-old librarian who lived at home with his parents. The idea of someone of that age in steady employment still living at home was a comic idea in the 1980s. Today many people are stuck living at home with their parents because they cannot afford to move out. The concept is no longer a comedy, it has become a tragedy. That is why we need to be realistic about building on some of the green belt.

Dr Tim Leunig is a lecturer in economic history at London School of Economics and chief economist at the Centre Forum think tank.

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