Amid the endless, breathless commentary from a visibly scared media ahead of publication of the Leveson report, one other story caught my eye as a strolled through the papers. ‘Swaths of green belt land sacrificed’ thundered the Telegraph in an article, at the first instance, that may only appeal to the paper’s self-interested, sharp-elbowed contingent in the south-east. Not so, for be under no illusion as to the scale of the planning crisis. Nationally there are just over 1.8 million households on waiting lists, representing 4.5 million people. Government data shows that just 120,000 new homes were built in the year up to September, while if you wish to outright own your own home the average age of a first time buyer is now 36.
In the vales and the lanes of England, this dispute is stirring again. The suggestion that local councils might want to liberalise this country’s antiquated – present Green Belt land was designated in the 1930s – planning laws is greeted with the guttural roar of ‘get off our land’. Indeed, this is exactly the campaign the Telegraph led when the government’s controversial (to some) planning reforms were going through parliament. The Telegraph’s latest outrage is that some 9,000 acres of land are set to lose their status as Green Belt. This is to be welcomed. For too long even the slightest hint of reform to England’s archaic planning system sent parliamentarians into panic. Conservative and liberal newspapers alike, so vocal in demanding bold action to revive the economy, have fought any reform of England’s near-mystical Green Belt.
It is not surprising then to read that 63 per cent of the public think that a quarter or more of the UK has been concreted over. In fact, the vast majority of land in England remains either green space or water. Nearly half of our green and pleasant land is designated Green Belt and just a tenth of England is developed, of which almost half is domestic gardens, while buildings cover less than two per cent of the land and transport infrastructure a further two and a half per cent.
But you will never read this from the press, parliamentarians or interested bodies – such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England – who only deal in hysteria. But their wild rhetoric can no longer be given credence. We need more houses yet we built fewer last year than in any peacetime year since 1924.
For Labour at least the omens at last appear promising. After a desperately disappointing record in government, the appointment of Jack Dromey as shadow housing minister is a sign that Ed Miliband recognises the crisis staring the nation in the face. Dromey is an impressive operator who, unlike so many of his predecessors, knows the industry and, crucially, how to bring it off its knees.
The solution is clear: if you want a home, lose a hedge. Of course, planning is an emotive issue, and nobody wants to irrevocably scare our landscape. It is in our very nature to oppose change in our day to day lives and in our immediate environment. But enough of the Telegraph and its scaremongering; if we want to choose to conserve the countryside as it is, we should do so while confronting the consequences honestly. There is, quite simply, land to spare. We as a nation must lose the near-fanatical nostalgia we have for any land to which the phrase ‘Green Belt’ can be attached.
If Labour is truly serious about providing housing for all – they’ll back local councils’ decisions to release the Green Belt. It is time to start building on this land that is so constricting our nation’s needs.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.