Headlines: January 15th, 2015

The Adam Smith Institute has called for the Green belt to be abolished to solve the UK housing crisis.

In a new report, The Green Noose, author Tom Papwort, sets out an analysis of Green Belts and proposals for reform.

The UK has some of the least affordable housing in the world. Much housing is also cramped and of poor quality relative to our nearest comparators. All politicians agree that something needs to be done but few know what to do. This paper seeks to contribute to the debate and offer practical solutions.

The paper takes a critical look at Green Belt policy in England. Although fairly densely populated, the UK is not especially overcrowded and is far from overdeveloped. Over 90% of England remains undeveloped and the entire housing need for the next decade could be fitted into just 0.5% of available land.

The Green Belt policy is based upon two poorly defined concepts: the distinction between “rural” and “urban” and the notion of “urban sprawl”. The former is artificial and the latter loaded and prejudiced; references to “sprawl” assume that housing and commercial space is a bad that needs to be curtailed.

The paper argues that there are very limited cases for preserving the setting and special character or historic towns, but claims that the broader opposition to the merger of all adjacent towns is misguided, ignores historical precedent and seeks to prevent natural and spontaneous growth. Finally, the suggestion that urban containment leads to urban regeneration is wrong and the policy potentially counter-productive.

The paper claims that the common beliefs that Green Belts provide access to green space for urban populations and are environmentally beneficial are untrue and that the opposite is the case. Urban populations value urban green space far more than Green Belts but these local parks are coming under increasing pressure as a result of urban containment policies and increased densification. The environmental benefits of Green Belts are overstated: they result in more land being devoted to transport infrastructure and to more pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

At best, the land that Green Belts “preserve” is protected only at the expense of other, potentially more environmentally valuable, land that is further removed from cities.

Green Belts are very costly because they result in urban containment policies on house prices, house sizes, house price volatility, costs to business and the environment. Green Belts have negative environmental effects and are harmful to individual welfare.

The paper argues for reform with the complete abolition of the Green Belt, a step which could solve the housing crisis without the loss of any amenity or historical value.

Alternatively, if such a step was considered too radical, an option would be to remove Green Belt designation from intensive agricultural land and this would also enable the building of all the housing required for the foreseeable future, and could help ameliorate the catastrophic undersupply of recent decades.

For the short term the paper argues for removing restrictions on land 10 minutes’ walk of a railway station. This would allow the development of 1 million more homes within the Green Belt surrounding London alone.