Public opinion, housebuilding and the green belt
How well do we know our own country?
In The English, Jeremy Paxman described a tendency towards “rural romanticism”, pointing to the gap between our imagined England and its reality. The many ‘perils’ created by our misperceptions have been well documented and the latest evidence should be heeded by all those keen to tackle the housing crisis.
Britain needs to rapidly accelerate the rate it is building new homes. Pretty much everyone knows it including most of the public and most politicians. Ipsos finds that by a margin of more than 2:1, Britons agree more than they disagree that ‘We will not make housing more affordable unless we increase the number of new homes being built every year’.
But there are two hulking great misperceptions in national consciousness. The first is a misperception of a perception! Nimbyism is a lazy caricature of sentiment. Yes, some people are fervent opponents of the notion of local building, just as some are pro, but most are more ‘maybe’ than nimby or yimby.
Public opinion is very conditional; the devil really is in the (planning) detail and the geography. For example, support is much lower for building new homes on greenfield — only 25% support this in England, while, by contrast, 69% support building on brownfield. Even 61% of opponents of local building support a brownfield option (although a stubborn 18% remain opposed).
Some opposition is legitimate. In its essay on the green belt, The Economist identified ‘urban scattering’ arising from a policy designed to prevent ‘sprawl’ with the consequence that infrastructure is inadequate, property is expensive, car emissions are higher and the environment is damaged. Some of these are tangible to people and feed an image problem for residential new builds.
The second perilous perception is the extent to which the country has already been developed. More than ten years ago, an Ipsos poll for the British Property Federation found people in England wildly over-estimating the extent to which the country had been built on. Last month, in an Ipsos’ poll for The Economist, the mean guess (excluding don’t knows) for the percentage of land in England currently developed — defined as “land that has been built on and is occupied by a permanent structure such as a building or a road, a path or pavement, a railway line” — was 47% compared to the real figure of around 9%.
It’s doubtful that many people are aware that buildings cover less of Britain than the land revealed when the tide goes out and such a niche understanding of Britain’s topography would itself be unrealistic, but, still, the difference between people’s perception of the extent of past development and reality is less a gap, more a gulf.
It matters because of the imperative to build with the green belt “one of the most successful exercises of branding in British history” according to Paul Smith. Brand loyalty can be very strong and love can be blind. A few years ago, an Ipsos poll for CPRE found people admitted to not knowing much about the green belt (a quarter had never heard of it). But should it be retained? Unequivocally yes.
Last month, Ipsos’ respondents were informed that ‘In England, 13% of land is classified as green belt, which is undeveloped land around or between large urban areas on which building is not allowed’. Then:
‘Some people argue that this should be retained to prevent large urban areas from spreading out or merging and protect agricultural and ‘greenfield’ land. Others argue that it contains some ‘brownfield’ land suitable for building and not building on the green belt means we cannot meet housing needs.’
Six in ten, 60%, favoured retaining the current green belt ‘even if it restricts the country’s ability to meet housing needs’, whilst 21% stated the opposite. This balance in preference existed among all groups and geographies but was narrower among younger age groups, people in London, renters, those who support new building and those who agree that affordability will be a problem without increasing supply.
This is significant given the political attention housing supply and the green belt are getting. Rishi Sunak has criticised Labour’s plan to “concrete over” England, signalling Conservative worries about the damaging electoral effects of past and future increases in local housebuilding. The Conservatives’ preference appears to be to build in Labour’s backyard — with Cambridge a very important exception — to achieve the agglomeration effects of expanding density in existing cities.
On the other side, the Greens and the Lib Dems have been cool on housebuilding on local doorsteps at election time if not in Parliament, while Keir Starmer has moved his party from opposing “predatory development” to backing “the builders against the blockers”. Lisa Nandy has similarly described a need to tackle the ‘taboo’ of the green belt.
Boldness and caution on housing supply is part risk, part opportunity because of three tensions. In Why Politics Fails, Ben Ansell identified the first which he called the “prosperity trap” caused by short-term political expediency overwhelming long-term benefits. Seeing and acting on the bigger picture requires some needing to ‘lose’ for others to ‘win’.
The second tension pits the desire to meet people’s very strong aspiration to get on the housing ladder, an increasingly elusive part of the ‘English dream’ for Generation Rent — let’s call this progress — against more protective instincts.
The third relates to a national imperative to secure growth alongside a local antipathy towards top-down imposition.
What about public opinion? It is often said that this trades in primary colours but for housing supply it’s more a case of secondary colours — green and brown. These feature prominently in the narrative about building new homes. For example, Labour and several others have sought to challenge just how green the green belt really is, while the CPRE used its recent annual report on the green belt to called for further greening.
Grey is another colour that matters, symbolising what people do and do not know and what they think about the issue. It means that addressing the housing crisis will require considerable political effort and skill as well as planning reform. This is not lost on the public who recognise restrictive planning to be a factor constraining housing supply but see disinterest from politicians and local opposition as even more important.
The green belt has been with us since 1955. Its appeal is deep, wide and, on this new evidence, fairly superficial. It will take more than the approaching General Election campaign to resolve what green belt 2.0 should look like, but at least the conversation has started.