“Green belt development is a very hot topic and it’s one that is often overlooked by the government when it comes to addressing the housing crisis”.
In this article, Matt Ford (trustee and director of Woods Hardwick) argues that “it’s time politicians take their heads out of the sand and give proper consideration to green belt development”
Green belt development is a very hot topic and it’s one that is often overlooked by the government when it comes to addressing the housing crisis.
Why? Because the general public perceive it as concreting over the countryside – despite that not being the case. This pressure is enough to deter those seeking re-election from considering the green belt as a viable option for the delivery of the homes we so desperately need.
West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, has generally been a great champion for the region – though when it comes to housing supply his approach to brownfield-first development raises concerns.
However earlier this year in an interview with Sky News, Mr Street did not completely rule green belt development out of the picture to keep his options open to voters.
There are two issues to address here. The first being the widespread misconception of just what the green belt is and what green belt development would entail. The second being the difficulties of brownfield regeneration and its ability and availability of sites to deliver the quantity of new housing required.
West Midlands MPs have been vocal in their stance against green belt building, but the green belt isn’t an overarching term for the countryside itself, but a spatial planning tool first introduced in the 1950s to prevent urban sprawl.
At the time, the UK population was 51 million people, today it’s in excess of 67 million, and so the idea that the green belt should be kept sacred is outdated and unrealistic, to say the least.
Our analysis of ONS data shows that the green belt in England covers 1.637 million hectares, which equates to 12.5% of the nation’s total land area. In contrast, a further 8.7% of land area is defined as ‘of developed use’, with just a small proportion of this described as ‘built-up’.
This demonstrates that, where land use is concerned, the green belt far exceeds developed land and by quite some margin. When you also consider that a great deal of the green belt is thought to have been incorrectly classified as such, the opportunities to take a sensible approach to building on it are vast.
So vast, in fact, that if we were to build on the entire green belt, it would facilitate the delivery of 73.7 million new homes.
Of course, nobody is suggesting that we should, but to put this into perspective, there are currently just 26.4 million dwellings across England. This means the green belt could facilitate almost three times the number of homes currently built across the nation.
Regionally green belt land covers over 20% of the West Midlands and could facilitate the construction of 11.925m new homes, the second highest total of potential new homes of all regions.
The government has been woeful in meeting any housing delivery target previously set and so, one must assume, that their target of hitting just 1 million homes by the next parliament is also doomed to failure. However, were they to utilise the green belt to achieve this target, it would mean building on just 1.4% of it nationally – a minute figure given the benefit that it would bring to people’s lives by delivering the housing requirements we all need.
In contrast, if every identified brownfield site across the nation was utilised to full capacity for house building, it would deliver just 1.4 million homes.
That would more than meet the government’s target, so great, let’s build on the brownfield.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy as that raises two issues – what would we do beyond building 1.4m brownfield homes and how do we go about it?
Brownfield land falls into four categories: partially occupied or utilised, derelict, vacant or contaminated. The latter is particularly problematic, posing threats to human health, as well as the wider environment and native wildlife.
As a result, brownfield regeneration is extremely challenging, not to mention costly, factors which act as substantial deterrents to developers. In short, it’s simply not a profitable endeavour and this unfortunately makes it an unrealistic approach when it comes to delivering the sheer volume of new homes in order to solve the housing crisis.
While it may have proven somewhat effective on a smaller scale, a brownfield first approach simply papers over the cracks, while appeasing the local population in an attempt to secure their vote – many of whom are already lucky enough to have made it onto the property ladder and care little for the plight of current homebuyers.
It’s time politicians take their heads out of the sand and give proper consideration to green belt development as brownfield development could at best paper over the housing crisis for the next five years.
Failure to do so will only see the housing crisis across the West Midlands worsen with higher prices, less opportunities and clear battle lines between those who have and those who don’t.
ABOUT OUR AUTHOR:
Matt Ford has over 20 years’ experience in engineering across the UK and is a engineering director at Woods Hardwick.
“Woods Hardwick, which has a 58-year history, is an employee-owned independent planning, surveying, engineering and architecture practice working in the residential and commercial sectors. Woods Hardwick has offices in London, Birmingham & Bedford.
The business works with the top housebuilders across the UK such as Bellway, Taylor Wimpey, Miller Homes and Vistry Group, as well as local private housebuilders. The Woods Hardwick commercial team also work with household names such as Harrods, Tesco and Lidl.
In 2022 the company became an employee-owned trust which led to it winning Employer of the Year at the SME Bedfordshire Business Awards in 2023.
Woods Hardwick’s total approach to planning, surveying, engineering and architecture helps to create and build an environment that you want to live, work and enjoy yourself in. Whatever the project, Woods Hardwick delivers a director-led approach with a skilled team to support the individual needs of each project – giving the client access to the industry expertise, regional knowledge and technical understanding needed to deliver on time, to budget and to a quality that delivers exceptional value.”