All posts tagged: house building
One of the frequent arguments put forward by countryside campaigners opposed to house building is that greenfield sites are needed for food production. According to this argument, new homes will endanger our ability to feed ourselves in the future.
The first response to this is that we don’t need to be self-sufficient in food. We are not a peasant economy. Of course, we need to think about air miles and local food production but short of a blockade by sea and air the UK is a modern trading nation that can import food from all around the world. Agriculture contributes less than one percent to UK GDP even though it takes up the vast majority of our land. We are much better at making and selling other thngs.
But if you look at a detailed analysis of land use in England you soon realise that there is another aspect to this argument. Ninety per cent of England is countryside – around 12 million hectares - but only 8.9 million hectares, or 74 percent, is actually used for agriculture, and around half of this is grazing land, mainly occupied by sheep and cattle. However, some of it is also occupied by horses. In fact, when you start to look at the statistics for the horse population some interesting figures emerge.
The estimate for the number of horses in England ranges from 600,000 to 1.1 million but no more than 20,000 of them are professional animals – i.e. involved in the horse-racing industry, eventing or dressage. According to the British Equestrian Trade Association an estimated 3.5 million people ride each year and the vast majority are leisure riders - and 75 percent of them are women and children. But there is also a problem with surplus and unwanted horses, with many reports of horses being dumped on land around the country.
According to the British Horse Industry Confederation, the average land grazed by each horse is one hectare. So even using a very conservative estimate, at least 600,000 hectares of England’s countryside is occupied by horses, and probably a lot more. To put this into context, this is almost HALF of the of the 1.3 million hectares of England that is built upon. What’s more, with the exception of a few rogue burgers, horses contribute precisely nothing to our food chain.
So just to be clear, horses occupy an area of land that is almost half the built up area of England. That is enough for 18 million homes! Most horses are grazed on land that may not be suitable for agriculture. In my previous blogs I have suggested that we need to build 3 million homes on greenfield sites over the next twenty years. In other words, just one seventh of the land currently used by horses could be built upon and it would have no impact upon food production whatsoever. This nails the argument that loss of greenfield land means loss of food production.
Now I have nothing against horses. I am sure they provide endless pleasure for millions of people, but we have to ask what our priorities are?
Drive around the north-east section of the M25 and you will see hundreds of horses grazing on scrubland that could accommodate thousands of new homes. Yet this is green belt land that is supposedly providing some kind of amenity value for Londoners. I don’t think so. Just a few miles away people are sleeping on the streets or in beds in sheds. You have to ask whether this is a wise use of resources. As I have argued before, one way to improve tackle affordability and homelessness in London would be to extend outwards towards the M25.
But this is not an argument about horses vs houses. Just a fraction of this unproductive land could meet our housing needs for generations to come.
‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,’ wrote Winston Churchill in 1943. I don’t think anyone would disagree that our built environment can influence behaviour and the quality of life, as theorists from Oscar Newman to the great Jane Jacobs have shown. But a recent report from RIBA, that received less attention than it deserved, should worry everyone involved in housing provision.
The Case for Space - The size of England’s new homes revealed that England is now building the smallest new homes in western Europe, and apart from being too small to swing a cat they are literally cramping our style, having a detrimental impact upon family life and harming the educational prospects of children who grow up in them.
The average floor space of homes in the UK is 85 square metres but for new homes this falls to 76 square metres. This compares to 88 square metres for new homes in Ireland (15 per cent bigger), 116 square metres in Holland (53 per cent bigger) and a staggering 137 square metres in Denmark (80 per cent bigger). According to RIBA’s survey, the top three things people look for when moving home are outside space (49 per cent), the size of the rooms (42 per cent), and closeness of local services (42 per cent). Almost a third of those questioned would not consider buying a home built in the last ten years, or would only consider it as a last resort. Of these, 60 per cent said it was because the rooms are too small. This is quite an indictment of planners and our house building industry.
Holland is twice as developed as England (20 per cent of its land area is built upon) yet their new homes are much larger. Why is this? The RIBA report sadly fails to analyse the culprits responsible for England’s tiny new homes, but in my view it is a clear consequence of our dysfunctional planning system and our failure to release enough land for housing.
Because of England’s restrictive planning regime we are already the most hemmed-in nation in Europe, with 90 per cent of us living in just 10 per cent of England’s area. European countries release far more land for development than we do. The Centre for Cities reports that Germany releases twice as much land for development pro-rata as the UK. As a consequence German house prices are 10 per cent lower in real terms than 30 years ago. By contrast, UK house prices have inflated in real terms (i.e. after inflation) by 273 per cent since 1959. If eggs had inflated at the same rate we would now be paying £18 for a dozen. This should be a cause for national debate and soul searching.
Land really is the solution to almost all the housing problems you can think of. By taking only a tiny proportion of additional greenfield land, just over 1 per cent of unprotected countryside, it would allow land values to fall and for the correct quantity and quality of new homes to be built, whether for sale or rent. This would help to eliminate our ludicrous £22 billion housing benefit bill and reduce significantly the demand for and the need for social housing.
This is why the argument about the National Planning Policy Framework is so critical and why it is so important that reactionary countryside campaigners do not dominate the debate. The transitional arrangements for the NPPF are due to be published this week and the revised document is promised shortly. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the government does not water down the original document.