(Question asked by the Marshall Society)

With eight million Britons living in housing that is overcrowded, unaffordable or otherwise unsuitable, more and more adults lodging with their parents, and as increasing numbers finding themselves homeless, it seems the housing crisis has in recent years become as much of a constant of politics in the UK as NHS underfunding, potholes and xenophobia. A whole host of policies will need to be rethought if we are to fix a mess of such magnitude, but few are as glaringly obvious as the green belt.

Of course, it shouldn’t take a housing crisis for us to realise the green belt policy is a dud. For one thing, the romantic idea that a patchwork of monoculture crop fields and golf courses is of any great ecological value is naïve at best. And by pushing commuters further away from the cities in which they work, green belts require people to travel for longer—usually by car—to get to their jobs, which is problematic for both their quality of life and the planet. Besides, it is far from clear why the ‘urban sprawl’ the green belt is supposed to prevent is such a bad thing, when the evidence shows that urban living is so much more environmentally friendly than the rural alternative. Just like a political party that opposes nuclear power and a frigid island in the North Atlantic, the green belt ultimately fails to live up to its verdant name.

But the housing crisis offers another reason to ditch this disastrous policy. In a country with a housing shortfall of over a million units, it couldn’t be much clearer that we need policies that encourage construction, not restrict it. Nobody wants the South to look like Greater Tokyo, but when only 11% of England has been built on, we can afford to take a more liberal approach to urban growth, with green areas punctuating cities, rather than suffocating them. 

Take Cambridge as an example. With space inside the green belt drying up, house prices here have grown by 20 percent in the last five years. So many people have been forced to commute in from a growing web of distant villages that a whole new layer of local government, the Greater Cambridge Partnership, has been created to provide the necessary transport links. Other cities face a similar story.

It would be foolish, though, to see reforming the green belt as a silver bullet. A holistic, liberal strategy would also involve greater incentives for developers to build housing where it is needed most—in inner-city neighbourhoods within existing green belts. For example, a land value tax would efficiently and fairly encourage higher density building in cities and push prices down. On the other hand, we must resist populist calls for rent controls and affordable housing requirements, which will be more of a hindrance than a help in tackling this crisis.

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