Protecting the Countryside Means Defending the Poor

The Government’s plans for coping with greenfield housing demand are misconceived

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian sometime in 1998

Could it really be true that the war over housing in the countryside has been won before it has even begun? Only a month ago, ministers were asserting that it was “unrealistic” to expect that any more than half the predicted 4.4 million new homes could be accommodated in the cities; the rest would have to be built on farmland. But last week John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, not only declared that more could be done to fit new homes into existing areas, but also challenged the very idea of guessing how many houses will be needed and then finding the land to build them on.

But if you’ve started celebrating, you haven’t been paying attention. There’s no question that John Prescott wants both to protect the countryside and to revitalize the towns. But his plans for coping with the growth in household numbers are both inadequate and sorely misconceived.

He’s right to call for the abandonment of a “predict and provide” approach to housebuilding. Just as more roads mean more traffic, housing demand can also expand to fill the space available. He’s right too to insist that empty buildings in cities be converted to affordable housing, though he has yet to suggest how the owners of empty property might be persuaded to release it. Thereafter, however, his thinking clouds, and the consequences are stormy.

Decision-making about the provision of housing, should, Mr Prescott says, be decentralised. He’s right: one of the ugliest aspects of government housing policy has been the trampling of local democracy. But John Prescott has not called for more LOCAL democracy, instead he wants “the REGIONAL provision of land to meet REGIONAL housing need”.

If, as this suggests, decisions will be devolved not to local authorities but to regional planning fora, then we can expect to see central government continuing to call the shots, while the local electorate is represented only by a fuzzy photocopy of the authorities it voted for. If, on the other hand, John Prescott is considering handing responsibility over to the forthcoming Regional Development Agencies, then we can kiss goodbye even to a shadow of accountable decision-making, as democracy is replaced by mega-quangocracy.

Most alarming, however, is the minister’s proposed tax on new development in the countryside. At first sight, it might look like a good idea. Rural land sells for just a fraction of the price of urban land, and a builder who can buy it at agricultural values can become very rich very quickly indeed.

But Britain’s fundamental development problem is not that rural land is too cheap but that urban land is too expensive, with the result that developers want to erect only luxury buildings there, rather than the affordable housing Britain so desperately needs. Making rural land dearer will further penalise the poor. Even without the tax, many rural housebuilders are already providing only family-sized homes at exorbitant prices, rather than catering for the increased numbers of single households the government foresees.

Moreover, a greenfield tax would become a powerful incentive for precisely the kind of development it is designed to discourage. What will a cash-strapped government department or local authority do when it needs some money? Release a tract of greenfield land for housing and collect a hefty dividend.

Are these really the best ideas Mr Prescott can come up with? If so, then he hasn’t been paying attention either. Much of the new housing in the countryside is being driven by the market in second homes: a straightforward abomination in a land where so many people are homeless, and one that is simply not tolerated in civilized countries like the Netherlands. Decision-making should of course be devolved, but devolved to local authorities and the communities they represent. They must also be released from the coercive power developers are able to exert, such as blackmailing them with the threat of an expensive planning appeal, or bribing them with the backhanders they call “offsite planning gain”.

But, most importantly, we must ensure that our towns and cities no longer fail to provide the development we need, while providing in abundance the kind of development that drives people into the countryside. This means a simple new planning guideline: no luxury development should be permitted until basic social needs have been met. In other words, affordable housing should come before office blocks, superstores, executive flats and millennium domes. Not only would this release urban land for housing, but it would bring the huge speculative price it commands crashing down, making decent affordable homes for all a workable reality rather than an impossible dream. Protecting the countryside means defending the poor.