There is nothing sacred about the green belt

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The Independent Online

Any economist would agree that one way to bring down the price of a commodity is to increase supply. So it is with housing, the spiralling cost of which in London and the South-east is fast becoming an economic and social problem. First-time buyers are being priced out of the market; workers in public-service professions such as the police and nursing are unable to live anywhere near their place of work; and the continuing shortage of council and social housing is a powerful factor in the problem of homelessness, especially among the young.

Any economist would agree that one way to bring down the price of a commodity is to increase supply. So it is with housing, the spiralling cost of which in London and the South-east is fast becoming an economic and social problem. First-time buyers are being priced out of the market; workers in public-service professions such as the police and nursing are unable to live anywhere near their place of work; and the continuing shortage of council and social housing is a powerful factor in the problem of homelessness, especially among the young.

So we should be grateful to the Royal Town Planning Institute for its timely intervention. The institute wants the green belt to be considered for limited development when appropriate, in order to free up space for housing. Lord Falconer, the minister for Housing and Planning, gave the institute's proposals a dusty response yesterday, commenting that the Government's strategy of favouring brownfield development represents an environmentally sound as well as effective way of dealing with the problem.

That is a rather complacent attitude for the minister to take. In the first place, it is clear that much brownfield development is irrelevant. Converting old mills in Nottingham, for example, may be a useful contribution to the problems in the East Midlands, but it is no help to a nurse who cannot find a place to live in, say, Newbury.

Demanding that brownfield developers earmark a certain proportion of new homes for social housing – the approach favoured by Lord Falconer – would necessarily have only a limited impact, for, if attempted on anything like the scale necessary, it may well render some developments unprofitable and therefore unbuilt.

And it cannot be argued that preserving the countryside for intensive farming is always the most environmentally friendly option. Why not try for a better balance between organic and modern farming, reforestation and affordable housing? We cannot achieve that if we retain an irrational belief that the green belt is, like some tribal burial ground, always and everywhere sacrosanct.

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