Should we loosen the Green Belt?
Liverpool University’s ‘policy provocations’ debate

  • James Heartfield, debated
  • Naomi Luhde-Thompson, Friends of the Earth
  • Professor Ian Wray, Town & Country Planning Association and Visiting Professor, University of Liverpool
  • Dave Rudlin, of URBED

John Flamson, Director at University of Liverpool in the chair

(Disclaimer: this is written up from my notes, so tends to give a clearer account of my own contributions than others. JH)

Dave Rudlin started by saying that it was right to have insisted that seventy five per cent of new building should be on brownfield land. They said we could not do it but we did. We have succeeded making inner cities more dense.

James Heartfield said think of it as a mathematical problem: 26 million households, means that you have to replace their homes once every 100 years or so, which means at least 260,000 new houses have to be built each year, just to stand still. But we are not standing still. The number of households is growing, and the population moves, putting more pressure on the South of the country. We need to build at least 280,000 new homes a year, but over the last 30 years, we have only built on average 190,000.

Like a frog in a saucepan you do not notice the problem, because the shortage at first just means the housing stock ages. John Stewart of the House Builder’s Federation who did these calculations worked out that each house built today would have to stand for 1200 years at the rate we were replacing them (which, of course, is not going to happen).

Now the problem is upon us. In a market society the housing shortage shows up as rising prices (If we lived under socialism the problem would show up as ever-lengthening queues.). An average of a quarter of a million for a house in the UK- Five times the average household income - rising to half a million in London. But the real problem is the shortage of houses. That is why people are living in more over-crowded conditions – or improved urban density as Dave calls it. It is why young adults cannot leave home. It is why people are found living in garden sheds, and in Manchester recently, in caves.

There are five trillion pounds tied up in Britain’s housing stock, and every year another 63 billion are paid out in mortgage repayments. What would you think of any other industry soaked up that much investment and saw its output decline every year? Except of course new building is so small it has no real impact on the housing market, which is not like a consumer goods market, but an antiques market, where the goods are very old, and massively overpriced.

Clearly something has gone wrong. Land is withheld under green belt restrictions, bidding up the price of homes artificially. It is not a green belt, it is a green noose.

Naomi Luhde-Thompson protested against this mathematical approach saying that it can’t be all about numbers, about quantity, it has to be about quality. We may denigrate greenbelt but it is part of our identity. Greenbelt provides for towns to have an Identity and a sense of place Look at sprawl London merges into one. I have lived in the suburbs of London they are soulless and have no identity. I have lived in Germany where they do things differently. New settlements are created through contracts with developers where occupants design homes. They are designed around public transport – it is a very different way to think about development. Of course there is big demand … for affordable housing. Why don’t they build affordable housing? The greenbelt has important role in relation to sprawl. The problem is that new development is car dependent, and we are locking people into using cars. Who is it good for, this building on the green belt? Is it good for the people that will live there, or is it good for the developers?

Ian Wray started with a quote:

'Nina looked down and saw inclined at an odd angle an horizon of straggling red suburbs; arterial roads dotted with little cars; a disused canal; some distant hills sown with bungalows; wireless masts and overhead power cables; men and women were indiscernible except as tiny spots; they were marrying and shopping and making money and having children. The scene lurched and tilted as the aeroplane struck a current of air. 'I think I am going to be sick,' said Nina."Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

We should see that the green belt has been highly successful stopping sprawl. Against expectations the green belt and town planning is not a socialist plot. Countless pieces of research have showed that planning restrictions puts up prices. Limits make our houses smaller. Houses 50% bigger in Holland and 80% bigger in Denmark. Even in Japan the average house is 21% bigger than average uk house – these are not countries with more available land than ours. The question is should housebuilding be deregulated in a freefall, with local authorities exploring options with no coordination, or we could return to strategic planning between cities with hybrid new towns in south.

In the discussion, the questions asked were whether the Green Belt really is a fixed thing, or more like a moveable feast, subject to the pressures of the day; to act like it is a real thing is a problem in itself (Dr Nicola Headlam)

From the floor: Not all greenfield is greenbelt. Green belt was a policy when didn't have planning and now it's an anachronism.

In the discussion Ian Wray said the question of whether we have a functional housing market depends on how much money you've got. If you are rich it is very functional.

James Heartfield said ‘the reason I balk when people talk about planners and planning is because if you were planning would you plan this? Is that what they thought, back in 1947: “Let's plan so our children cannot afford houses, rents are through the roof and people have to live in sheds.” Ordinarily, when you make a plan, you see how it worked out, whether you achieved what you were trying to achieve.

Naomi Luhde-Thompson said that planning should always be flexible not absolute. The problem is that Planners prefer big solution assign a site one two developers but will not meet needs of people living locally on small wages

From the floor Grant Butterworth, the Liverpool City Council Chief said planning is about coordinating infrastructure, more than it is about green belts. Investment in infrastructure must be done on citywide coordinated basis

Ian Wray said what has been clear over last decade is planners actions determined by an out of date rule book.

James Heartfield, asked whether the market is the problem or the regulations: ‘There no getting away from it way big money has impacted development is insanely destructive. When you look at output of the big firms, the so-called volume builders, it is not volume, it's tiny. These large monopolies love planning system. The planning system raises the bar of entry into the business, and prices competitors out. A complex legal system facilitates those with power, and works against smaller developers. On quite a small output, the big companies get massive profits.

Dave Rudlin said we need to rebalance country by growing northern cities. Today Liverpool is half the size it was. Part of that is decline, but part of it is the draw of the new towns.

Ian Wray disagreed. The argument that new towns damaged Liverpool is exaggerated: studies show that most left for suburbs in Wirral or Sefton. We should designate new towns. It is pretty obvious that the coalition wanted to go back to new towns but Eric Pickles didn't think it was a good idea.

Naomi Luhde-Thompson thought that like Hamburg, Liverpool should have mandatory green roofs or solar panels.

James Heartfield, concluding, money has had an utterly perverse impact on housing market, bidding up prices beyond most people’s reach. There is no real shortage, though, we have more than enough land in UK, if we build on it. I would like to revive a Utopian Socialist ideal, the abolition of the divide between Town and Country. It is a 19th Century idea to say Town here, and Country there. We don't need to live cramped tiny homes, or in sheds - we can live in the whole country.

After the debate, I met Nicola Headlam, Mary McGill and John Brook, who had asked questions from the floor, and then went for dinner with the speakers, the new head of the Heseltine Institute, Alan Harding, John Flamson Grant Butterworth - and John Sturzaker, who set the original debate up.

Next: my further adventures in Liverpool