The Guardian reports today that 10,000 acres of greenbelt land are under threat from some of the most unfashionable companies and institutions in the country: The Crown, BP, Oxford university colleges, British Aerospace, and private land speculators. All it seems are ready to cash in their countryside land on the massive potential increase in land value that may be realised if ideas in the forthcoming planning white paper become law.
If you believe the article Hertfordshire will practically cease to exist and instead become a suburb. The article says that 92,000 new homes may be built in the county.
All quite possibly true, and it’s fair to assume that altruistic concerns about housing need are not the main drivers here. What baffles me about this issue is how some consider greenbelt land a first and not a last resort when it comes to meeting housing need.
There are well over 300, 000 long term empty homes in public and private ownership. Some of these will and all should be reused to provide new housing supply. But the government does not take their potential into account when calculating the need for new homes. It seems to me as if the government has a blind spot on this issue it can only see new housing supply in terms of new houses; the big house builders are of course only too happy to concur. But if you stop to think there are huge benefits from creating as much new supply from existing buildings as possible. Most empty homes are in existing neighborhoods meaning big savings in infrastructure costs (About £35,000 per property according to an estimate last year) and reusing building structures saves huge quantities of embodied energy (and hence carbon emissions) over new build. That's all to say nothing of the improvements to those existing neighborhoods by improving run down vacant buildings.
Of course this can only be a small contribution to the huge need for new housing. Most will need to be met by building new houses and some I fear will have to be on the green belt. But there are for example 4000 empty homes in Hertfordshire that could be used to meet housing supply needs. Surely, with apologies to the accountants at Crown estates, BP et al we should be looking at these first and the greenbelt last.