Petrifying greenfield

January 3, 2006 | Legislation and policy, United Kingdom, Urban development

The danger in offering a powerful symbol is insidious slow strangulation by expectation creep: the ideal becomes the target, the target becomes the expectation, the expectation the base, and the base becomes sacrosanct. 


We already have a greenfield.


The danger is all the greater when:


  • The ideal is offered as if free.
  • The political costs of challenging the shibboleth are all too visible.
  • The economic or policy costs of doing nothing are slow to manifest, beyond the election horizon.


If a recent UK Telegraph article is any indication, such slow economic auto-asphyxiation appears to be gradually choking English urban development.  As the Telegraph put it, with audible glee:


Labour has presided over a 60% increase in house building on Green Belt land, new figures showed yesterday. The disclosure provoked fresh criticism of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, for concreting over much of rural England.


Apparently, this was the only picture of John Prescott the Telegraph could find


Just how badly has Labour paved paradise?


The figures, from Mr Prescott’s department, showed that the average number of houses built on Green Belt land rose from 3,287 during 1994 to 1996 – the last three full years of the Major government – to 5,265 between 1998 and 2003 under Labour.


How much land was involved?  The Telegraph doesn’t say, but arithmetic does:


The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed the criticisms, saying that Labour had increased the average housing density from 25 to 40 dwellings per hectare (2.74 acres), “making the same amount of land go further”. 


Forty per hectare is 15 homes per acre, comparable to the density of typical terrace housing or American walkup garden apartments.  At that density, the bulldozer rampage has turned the astonishing, catastrophic average of 330 acres a year into housing.  A half a square mile per year.  That’s 1/175,000th of the United Kingdom’s area, a dastardly 0.0006% of England’s green and pleasant land, gone forever.


“Burn her anyway!”


Never one to let numeracy inhibit a scare quotes, the Tories and Lib Dems shamelessly piled on:


Caroline Spelman, the Conservative local government spokesman, said last night: “Under John Prescott’s watch, Green Belt protection has become worthless.”


“The Green Belt has served England well for half a century but this is decreasingly the case.


“The new figures confirm that it faces a sustained assault from Mr Prescott’s army of bulldozers and concrete mixers.”






At this rate, it’ll all be paved over in less than a millennium!



Army of bulldozers.  A half a square mile a year.




Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesman, accused the Government of manipulating the Green Belt by eroding areas on the fringes of urban areas but redesignating land farther out that was never likely to be built on.




“They are designating land as Green Belt land simply to fiddle the figures,” he said.




Remarkably, the greenbelt phenomenon is now a half-century old:




Legislation allowing for the control of urban sprawl was passed under Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1947, although the Tories [Jostling for credit over a popular if questionable policy.  — Ed.] said that they implemented the protective regime in 1955.




Since then, large tracts of the country have in theory been protected against urban sprawl and over-development.




Any development, you mean.  Here in the states, we have a term, BANANA — Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody.  The EU has substantial banana-import-management schemes, but judging from this thinking, there is no need, as they are in ample home-grown supply.






This would never be allowed in England ….




Building has never been banned on the Green Belt but councils have to take account of the restrictions when considering planning applications. New rules strengthening Green Belt protection are due to come into effect in the New Year.




Mr Prescott, whose department oversees the planning and development rules, has faced severe criticism both on his stewardship of rural England and his controversial regeneration plans for housing in urban areas in the Midlands and North.




In November, the urban task force he set up condemned his planned wholesale demolition of Victorian and Edwardian terraces in cities such as Liverpool as “clumsy, insensitive, rushed, and wasteful”.







Victorian terrace houses, Henley on Thames




Ironically, these very terraced houses were once seen as sprawl run amok:




During the 1920’s the population of the greater London area increased about 10%.  The build-up area, in contrast, doubled, creating an outward sprawl at least as great as anything seen in late twentieth-century America.  Much of the growth consisted of rows of semidetached houses.  These sturdy houses, like the row houses of the nineteenth century, were deprecated by much of the British cultural elite, but they were highly appreciated by ordinary Londoners.


Robert Bruegmann, Sprawl: A Compact History, page 34




Meanwhile, the UK’s population continues to grow, albeit slowly (less than a quarter percent a year) to 60.4 million in 2005. But that means roughly 151,000 new Britons a year, and at 3.00 people per household (well higher than the national average), that’s a need for 50,300 additional homes per year. 




The greenfield development, the onrush of the demolishers, represents less than one-tenth of the new supply required. 





How to find Greenfield Urgent Care?  In California, of course!




This basic analysis suggests fairly clearly that the problem isn’t too much building on greenbelt, but too little:




The report is published in anticipation of John Prescott’s imminent announcement of a new housing target, itself the result of expected increases in the number of households (the result, in turn, of increased immigration and family breakdown, but those are different stories). As Lord Rogers puts it succinctly (full report here, link in .pdf), “the need for more houses is overtaking the need for good houses”.








There was one dissenting voice to the [Lord Rogers] panel’s conclusion that increasing the density of city development was the solution to the problems of both town and countryside.




A voice of reason?




Prof Peter Hall, the president of the Town and Country Planning Association, called for “houses with gardens, not high-rise hell.”




Indeed, buried way back at the very end of the Rogers report, Professor Hall says it in plain English:




In summary: I believe there is no overriding need to save greenfield land, of which we have a surplus in South East England; the case on sustainability grounds for raising minimum densities is non-proven; the requirement to first develop brownfield land in the growth areas would in practice lead to inflexibility which would almost certainly slow their development; present policies are already inhibiting new housing completions and causing and unprecedented increase in apartment [I think he means mid-rise and high-rise flats as opposed to townhouses and semi-detached. — Ed.] construction, unsuitable for families with children and undesired by potential residents.




I am therefore concerned that the proposals on brownfield and densities, however well-intentioned, would — if implemented — deepen the well-documented housing crisis that faces us and our government.




A man that eloquent and stalwart deserves a salutary photograph: