What Does the UK Green Party Propose Be Done to Increase UK Housing?
The Greens and several other organisations default to building on previously-used land for much-needed housing. But there are grey areas between brown and green.
The environmental and social justice mission of the UK Green Party may seem in conflict relative to the critical housing shortage in the country. The lack of places to build as imposed by green belt and greenfield protective measures runs gobsmack into the need to build more than one million homes to alleviate the shortage, one that is attributed to rough sleeping and other societal ills.
It’s a complicated conundrum, to be sure. Inadequate building has been decades in the works, and the results affect people in the UK at all levels. Further, global economics play a role in how wealthy foreigners are snapping up English residential properties as financial instruments, effectively so given the year-upon-year, double digit valuation increases of prime property assets – especially in London, but in other parts of the country as well.
And frequently the response from the Green Party, the housing charity Shelter UK, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), the Department for Communities and Local Government and many elected officials is to instead build on brownfield land. Estimates run as high as 1.5 million homes could be built if every inch of brownfield land were used for housing.
But few take an absolutist view of this. Shelter argues for a hybrid approach, using both brownfield and greenfield land to build because the immediate needs are so pressing. Others have made the case that some green belt land fails to live up to its objectives, that it would be better to build where environmentally unfriendly activities (refuse dumping, chemical-intensive farming, etc.) could instead be replaced with quality housing while urban brownfields are converted to parkland.
Some points about brownfields and house building in the UK should be included in the discussion:
• Only one-third of the number of brownfield sites cited by the CPRE and Green Party estimates are located in London and the South East, the areas where the housing shortage is most acute.
• Brownfield compared to greenfield development already favours brownfields at a ratio of 2:1 (i.e., it is already happening where economically viable).
• Brownfield development can require decontamination, which “can be a legal minefield, involving unpredictable long-term liabilities for developers,” according to the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in a blog published in 2014 (“Don’t count on brownfield: it won’t solve the housing crisis alone”, by Kristian Niemietz).
• There can be tax benefits to clean-up costs for decontamination efforts, “but the tax situation is so complex that developers cannot readily assess to what extent they will be able to make use of those options,” says the IEA blog.
• Further, some but not all brownfield sites are located near infrastructure (roads, water, utilities, schools, hospitals) that could support a community of decent housing. In some cases the new infrastructure costs could be prohibitive even while the location would be undesirable to residents and from a green perspective (e.g., no access to public transport).
The Land Trust, a land management charity that owns and manages more than 1,000 hectares of public open space – a mission arguably aligned or complementary to that of the Green Party – takes a mixed position on this. Its director of operations, Matthew Bradbury, published a statement in 2014 that planners and investors with an interest in UK land might take to heart: “The real solution will involve a complex range of options. It’s true to say that we should be focusing on improving brownfield land, as the cost to communities of leaving it as brownfield can be significant – it impacts on health, anti-social behaviour and many more aspects of our quality of life. But to suggest that the housing crisis can be solved by building on brownfield land alone is both naive and unrealistic.'”
It’s a matter of pragmatism that drives Bradbury’s approach – a strategy that some might agree with but which is likely to work expeditiously in a market-driven system. Investors indeed act rationally, and that includes seeking third party advice such as through independent financial advisors who can assess an investment from a purely economic evaluation. But as the debate continues on greenfield and brownfield development, it’s clear that broader social considerations can influence investors as well.