You would have to be a hermit to be unaware of the housing crisis which grips towns and cities across England. Homeless people line our high streets and occupy shop-fronts. But the housing crisis is far wider than that most obvious representation of homeless people, because it flows all the way through to sofa-surfing, and families living in damp, decaying flats, paying exorbitant rents.
The gap between older people who bought their homes when property prices were much lower, and young people who now only dream of buying a home, is stark. That pressure may well be starting to create fissures in society – fissures of resentment. Governments of all stripes have wrung their hands and made grand plans to address the problem.
I remember working on proposals for Eco-Towns about 10 years ago – remember them? They were going to be new Green New Towns in various places around the country. No, almost all of them didn’t get built. Then the Coalition Government decided the best way to put a rocket under the house-building market was to relax planning laws, which they did in 2012. House-building rates didn’t budge. So they relaxed the planning laws more and more – and now you can convert an office into a residential flat without planning permission. Result? Lots of low quality housing, but big profits for developers.
Then there is the ruse of allowing developers to avoid having to build, or even pay for, affordable housing, as part of new developments. Developers have to write Housing Viability Assessments, explaining why it wouldn’t be economic for a development to take place if the affordable housing obligation was included. But the assessments are kept secret, so nobody can object to the dodgy maths on which they are based.
This happened where I live in Dorchester, when the old prison was sold off. The developers argued that they couldn’t afford to incorporate any affordable housing, or even make a contribution to it being built elsewhere, but kept the viability assessment report a secret. Despite the Council’s reluctance, they were, in effect, forced to allow the development to go through, knowing they would lose at an Appeal, and then have to pay the developers’ massive legal bill.
But there’s an even bigger prize, on which Mr Rees-Mogg has his eyes. And that is the Green Belt. The Green Belt is one of the very earliest pieces of environmental legislation, its origins dating back to the end of the 19th century, when large-scale suburban housing development really started to take off. It was in the 1930s, when suburban sprawl threatened to destroy the rural hinterlands around the great urban conurbations of London, Birmingham and Manchester, that the idea of containing this sprawl with a Green Belt became a real prospect. The idea was that the Great Metropolis’ needed “green lungs” for people to escape the dirt and pollution of city life; to breathe freely, partake in various recreational activities; and enjoy nature and beauty.
The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act – yet another of those monumental Acts created by the post-war Labour Government – enshrined these ideals in law and statutory Green Belts, with real powers to protect land from development, were created over the following 20 years or so.
Now, 1.6 million hectares of England falls within a Green Belt, most of this being around London, the West Midlands, Yorkshire and the North-West conurbations. That’s about 12% of England. By coincidence, most of Mr Rees-Mogg’s constituency of North-East Somerset is covered by the Bristol and Bath Green Belt.
Green Belt designation makes it much harder for housing to be developed, but the belt is already fraying at the edges – data released last week showed that new housing in the Green Belt had doubled over the last year, from 2% of all new builds, to 4%.
For those of you who also adopt hermit-like behaviour when it comes to politics, Mr Rees-Mogg, famous for being described as the “Honorable Member for the 18th Century”, is the Leader of the ultra-hard Brexit group of Tory MPs the European Research Group. He is also immensely wealthy, thanks to his investment group Somerset Capital Management, which was recently criticised for its Russian investments, especially in Russia’ largest bank, Sberbank, which is subject to EU sanctions.
Rees-Mogg is regarded (very seriously in some quarters) as a possible leader of the Tory party. As well as his rather 18th century views on social issues (gay rights, abortion etc.), he has little time for environmental protection either, having argued that we should adopt the same level of regulation for the environment and workers’ rights, as India.
Rees-Mogg, in an interview broadcast on the Conservative Home website, argues that the 1947 Planning Act was a “Socialist Act” which enabled bureaucrats to decide what was best for people, and that it has created the housing crisis by restricting the supply of land for housing. He argues that while there is genuine Green Belt, there is also much that is “poor quality scrub land that could easily be developed.” Rees-Mogg’s view is that natural beauty should be protected (via Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or AONBs) but that villages within AONBs can take “5 or 10 more houses” without risking any adverse impact on ‘natural beauty’.
Others are also banging the same drum – The Landscape Institute is calling for a strategic review of Green Belt policy.
In truth very little of the Green Belt is covered in scrubland (it’s such a small percentage it’s not even included in the statistics) – and what if it was? Scrub is a very valuable wildlife habitat, and one of the richest in terms of overall diversity of plants and animals, as well as supporting many rarities. Lodge Hill – the abandoned army camp in Kent made famous for the ongoing battle to stop it having a new town built on it, supports England’s largest Nightingale population, precisely because it has a large area of Scrub.
The notion that our housing crisis can be solved by building houses on the scrub-covered Green Belt is a fantasy. And Mr Rees-Mogg’s fantasy scrublands only exist on those sunlit Brexit-uplands, grazed by Unicorns, which occupy his dreams.
this article first appeared on the Lush Times website.