No, there are not 460,000 homes planned for England’s green belts. If only there were

Lies, damned lies and statistics. 

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Mamma mia, here we go again. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, a body whose raison d’etre is to protect the interests of elderly homeowners and fields, has produced the latest edition of its State of the Green Belt report. Does it conclude that the green belt is in a pretty fine kind of a state, sitting smugly around the place as it chokes off productivity growth and prevents us from building the houses that we need? No it does not.

The Green Belt remains under severe pressure, despite government commitments to its protection, according to a new report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

CPRE’s annual State of the Green Belt report highlights that there are currently 460,000 homes being planned to be built on land that will soon be released from the Green Belt.

There’s even a TERRIFYING CHART to illustrate the problem:

Now. Regular readers will know my position on all this. The green belt is a decades-old planning policy, designed to prevent sprawl at a time when our cities were shrinking in population and, anyway, had plenty of spare land that had helpfully been cleared by the Luftwaffe. Many of those cities are today facing a housing crisis which is in large part the result of a shortage of housing supply. That, in turn, is the result of a shortage of available land on which to build.

So, if London or Oxford or Bristol are to build enough homes to meet demand, there are really only two options: build up, by densifying existing parts of the city; or build out, onto previously undeveloped land. Since there are large chunks of the green belt that have decent transport links, aren’t open to the public and are not, in fact, very green, my preference has generally been to go for the solution that doesn’t involve demolishing large numbers of existing homes simply to protect a field.

But let’s put all that to one side for a moment because the entire CPRE report is a load of smelly old bollocks anyway. Look at that chart again: note the way the number of houses “proposed for land release from the green belt” collapses after the initial 2009 figure, then gradually begins to creep up.

What’s going on here? The key is that word “proposed”. These are not real houses, yet, and very well may never become them. They exist entirely within the realms of the local plans councils have written to show how they plan to meet their housing need. The reason their numbers have increased so steeply is because more and more councils have finished producing those plans. (The 2009 draft regional plans clearly under-estimated the figure.)

In other words, what the CPRE has identified here is not an ever growing number of homes on the green belt, but an ever growing number of bits of paper saying such homes may one day be built. They’ve leapt on it, because, “Number of homes proposed for the green belt doubled in three years!” is the sort of headline that’ll get you news coverage for your report. That doesn’t change the fact those houses don’t exist and very probably, given the difficulty of getting communities to accept green belt development, never will.

Does this duplicity matter, really? We all know that campaign groups exaggerate the urgency of their issue in an attempt to garner donations and press coverage. I mean, this is the game, right?

But it does matter – because whether through deliberate cynicism, or merely sloppy research, the CPRE’s report will mislead. It suggests that a growing chunk of the British countryside is disappearing under a tide of brick. That simply isn’t true.

And persuading people that it is makes it harder for politicians to take the tough choices necessary to house this country.

Today’s CPRE report airily waves the need for such choices away, by claiming that there is enough brownfield land – that is, previously developed but currently unoccupied land – in England to provide a million extra homes. That may well be true, but this, too, is misleading, for three reasons.

One is that “land in England” is too wide a category to be useful: if your job is in Oxford, the construction of new homes in Sunderland is of no bloody use to you whatsoever. Another is that, while a million homes sounds like a big number, it isn’t: it’s three or four years supply. Were we to develop every square inch of this land as housing, we would still run out of land by about 2022.

But the biggest problem here is that brownfield land is not all suitable for housing. It may be too contaminated to be easily cleaned up without making local children glow in the dark like they’ve eaten too much Ready Brek, too far from transport links, even – confusingly – too green. (The Hoo Peninsular, in Kent, is technically brownfield: it’s also an important breeding site for nightingales.) The only time “brownfield” is a useful category is when you’re writing a misleading report about how we don’t need to build houses on fields.

So, to end where we came in, for a city struggling to build enough homes to house its population, there are only two options: build up, or build out. The CPRE has made clear it doesn’t want to build out. So what I’d like to know is – whose homes does it think we should demolish?

(Shameless plug: I argued some of these points with the CPRE’s Tom Fyans on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning. You can listen here – my bit starts at around 1.13.10.)

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.