Building in the Green Belt

"Blair and 2 Jags ruin South East"
(Sprayed on a bridge over the M1 near St. Albans)

Shortly before its ignominious defeat in 1997, the Conservative government imposed the County Structure Plan on Hertfordshire. This decreed that 65,000 new houses were "needed" in the county by the year 2011. Unfortunately, this policy was continued by its Labour successor and accepted by Lib-Lab pact Hertfordshire County Council and the then Labour-controlled Dacorum Borough Council.

Party politicians squabbled for months in the local press over who is to blame for this massive environmental destruction, but in fact there was a considerable degree of unanimity. Few politicians questioned whether these houses were really needed, whether Hertfordshire is the right place to build them, or whether the right kind of houses were being built.

The County Council decided to distribute the new houses throughout the county instead of building a new town on the site of the former Hatfield aerodrome. Cynics have suggested that this decision was prompted by a desire to inflict maximum damage on the Conservatives. The effect on the environment certainly does not seem to have been a major factor in the decision.

While other borough and district councils protested at the quota of new houses handed down to them by the county council, Dacorum Borough Council initially wanted to build more than its share. This was based on a bogus piece of science called the "Dacorum Housing Needs Survey".

I spent three years at university, during which I read a large number of scientific papers. These fell into two categories. In some, the authors drew conclusions from the evidence, while in others they first decided on the outcome they wanted and then altered the facts to fit. Dacorum's Housing Needs Survey was one of the latter.

Basically, Dacorum attempted to assess housing need by asking people if they were adequately housed. Thus it was housing demand which the council surveyed, not housing need. I wonder if it would attempt to assess poverty by asking people if they were adequately paid?

It was deemed that ten percent of those who considered themselves adequately housed at the time of the survey would have changed their minds within five years. No evidence was offered for this assumption.

In 1997 we were offered three excuses why so many more houses are needed. None of them stand up to scrutiny. Firstly that people will live longer in the future. Secondly, that more families will break up, leading to more people living alone. Thirdly, that more young people will want to leave the family home at a younger age.

The excuses are derived from extrapolation of current trends. Nobody is able to explain the assumption that these trends will continue. They might as well try to predict the weather for 2011 as the housing need.

Average life expectancy has increased over the last few years, but the people who are elderly now spent most of their lives in an era when walking was an unavoidable part of the daily routine, when fresh vegetables from the local market or greengrocer were an essential part of the diet, and when there was little to keep them awake at night. How long will it be before the lack of exercise, poor diet and lack of sleep endemic in current society begin to reduce life expectancy?

I see no reason to suppose that the number of broken homes will go on rising. I hope the Politically Correct will eventually realise that the breakup of traditional family units is an undesirable trend which should be resisted, not accommodated.

Neither is it logical to predict that more young people will be leaving home earlier by 2011. Population statistics suggest that the number of young people will decline sharply between 2001 and 2011. Better use of existing accommodation would be made if they were encouraged to stay in the family home for longer. This might also have a beneficial impact on some social problems. Noise nuisance in residential neighbourhoods at night, for instance, is mainly committed by people under the age of 25 while nobody older is on the premises.

The only reliable feature of social trends is their unreliability. For example, it used to be said that new computer technology would lead to us all working less and having more leisure time. Now that the new technology has arrived, those with jobs mostly work longer hours, while it is those without jobs who have the leisure time, otherwise known as unemployment.

By 2002, the story seemed to have changed. We still need thousands of new houses on green field sites, but for different reasons. The new excuses do not stand up to scritiny, either. It may be true that there are roughly a quarter of a million immigrants arriving in Britain each year: enough to fill a city the size of Cambridge or twelve and a half towns the size of Berkhamsted. However, immigrants are almost all among the poorest members of society. They will not be able to afford to buy, or even to rent, new houses in the south east.

It is certainly true that businesses are tending to move from the north of England to the south east, and bringing their more skilled staff with them. There are whole neighbourhoods of empty properties in northern cities such as Liverpool, and insufficient jobs for the residents who remain. The taxpayer is having to pay for the demolition of derelict houses. So why does the Government not give tax incentives to southern companies to move north?

Councillors of all political colours have avoided telling us why building on the Green Belt is to be allowed when there is derelict land available. Many local residents, including Tony Mc. Walter, the Labour M.P. for Hemel Hempstead, believe there is no need to build in the Green Belt at all as there are enough "Brownfield" sites to meet local needs for housing.

I asked Dacorum's former Director of Planning, Colin Barnard, how many houses could be accommodated on derelict sites in Berkhamsted. In reponse he sent me three volumes which cost 1.20 to post. Having read through them I found that they did not answer the question. I can think of no honest reason for withholding this information.

I suspect that the key to the whole issue is that it is more profitable to build on green field sites than on derelict ones. The intended beneficiaries are politicians' and civil servants' cronies in the property development industry, not the people who need housing.

I would particularly like to know how certain property development companies knew exactly which Grade 3 agricultural land to buy before it was even suggested to the general public that any Green Belt land might be "Released" for development.

Instead of the smaller, more affordable homes which are needed locally, planning law will allow the developers to build the four and five bedroom houses which are most profitable for them. These will inevitably be ugly boxes of low architectural merit. They will be beyond the means of most local people and will instead be bought by the cream of society - the rich, thick and tasteless.

Mr. Barnard told a Hemel Hempstead man that single people would want to buy three-bedroom houses. He said they would want one spare bedroom for guests and another for computer equipment. The idea is risible. Three-bedroom detached houses in the locality often sell for as much as 300,000. In order to pay a 300,000 mortgage, a single person would require a salary in excess of 70,000.

Green Belt houses will be located on the edges of towns, so most of the residents who come into the town centres will drive, adding to the problems of congestion and lack of parking. Many will find it easier to shop at out-of-town superstores, generating further unnecessary car journeys and depriving local retailers of the trade.

We do not have sufficient water available in Berkhamsted to supply so many new houses during dry spells. Excessive abstraction from boreholes has already caused local rivers to dry up during the late 1990's. Figures from the Chiltern Society showed that the water table in the Bulbourne valley fell by nine to twelve feet between 1975 and 1998. This is having a disastrous effect on wildlife. Species which were locally plentiful fifteen years ago, such as the Common Frog and Song Thrush, are now comparatively rare.

There are also serious problems with the sewers, which suffer from an infiltration of rainwater during wet weather and become overloaded. The roads are severely congested and in such poor condition that local people liken them to those of a third world country. There is insufficient parking to meet demand. There are too few state school places to accommodate additional children.

As far as property developers and their cronies are concerned, these are "Someone else's problems". In other words, local taxpayers will be presented with a big bill in years to come.

If the Government were genuinely interested in meeting housing needs, it could change the law so developers could be obliged to build smaller, lower-priced homes instead of more profitable four and five bedroom houses. It could also stop landowners from leaving sites derelict and properties empty for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, the wealthy organisations which own most derelict sites would find this inconvenient. They might then withdraw funding and other support from political parties and government schemes.

Berkhamsted has already suffered a great deal of development over the last thirty years. Sprawling estates of low architectural standard and "In-filling" of scarce open spaces against the wishes of neighbours have severely damaged the appearance of the town. Attractive properties are still being demolished to make way for ugly high-density development. Local people have borne more than their share of new housing already.

Dacorum Borough Council is still engaging in "Consultation" over its plans to allow building in the Green Belt, but it would be unwise to expect any major changes. These would cost too many cronies too much money.

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Copyright © 2004 - Ian Johnston
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