'There is nothing socially-progressive about GMSF...' - A Centre-Left Voter's View

One High Lane resident has submitted the following critique of the GMSF housing plans. The resident wishes to remain anonymous but explained in their email that they have historically voted centre-left parties - but now feel dismayed and disillusioned by the way the GMSF plan is being applauded by some centre-left politicians whilst others just remain silent. Putting party politics to one side, they also wonder more generally about the competency of those politicians who oversaw the GMSF plan in the first place...

'THERE IS NOTHING SOCIALLY-PROGRESSIVE ABOUT STATE-SANCTIONED, SHAREHOLDER-SPONSORED LANDGRABS'

Preventing urban sprawl and protecting greenbelt is fundamentally not about preserving nice views for wealthy people – as the stereotype is often portrayed, usually under the ‘NIMBY’ heading. Nor is preventing urban sprawl and protecting greenbelt necessarily a reactionary, small ‘c’ conservative posture. Preventing urban sprawl and protecting greenbelt is good for everybody - such a position is, in truth, a socially-progressive strategy.

‘Donut Cities’

Firstly, we need an intelligent conversation about the cities we want over the long-term – not just the short to medium term. We should learn lessons from experience in the United States where the trend has been for cities to expand outwards due to the availability of land. This in the first instance has helped fuel growth, allowing cities to go through ‘boomtown’ periods and cater for migration of new talent into their areas.

However, what has followed this type of outwards expansion is another noted trend of ‘donutting’ where city centres which were originally the hub for commercial, retail and industrial units – the engine room of the city’s economy – have in turn emptied outwards. This is not simply due to decline of such sectors during times of recession. In fact, a city undergoing a ‘boomtown’ period can still see emptying outwards as companies move their jobs closer to the more affluent, influential and skilled people they need - situated as they are, following urban sprawl, on the outer rim.

It is not socially-progressive for politicians – of whatever party, but particularly those who claim to represent the lower classes – to allow this trend to occur as it will likely have most impact on the poorer, less mobile, less-skilled workers as the sources of jobs move further away from them.

‘Car Towns’

Urban sprawl also inadvertently promotes ‘car towns’ because to cover a large spread of area with a high-tech transport infrastructure (railways, highways, subways) costs more than a more densely-packed ‘upwardly built’ conurbation – so whilst the developers are quick to build housing on the green outskirts of cities, they are more reticent to make commitments on expensive transport systems and other infrastructure to accompany them.

The United States is famous for its car culture yet also infamous for its obesity problems. The United States is considered to be one of the most obese / unfit societies in the world but we must realise Britain is not that far behind it. Taking the car from the doorstep of a house to the entrance of a workplace requires little walking – unlike buses, trams and trains. ‘Car towns’ have a clear impact on obesity and Britain’s politicians would do well to consider this in their housing plans.

Similarly, we may instinctively view smog – caused by excessive motor vehicle use and congestion – to be an ‘Asian problem’ but Britain is fast becoming a country where air pollution is a public health emergency (having a knock on-effect on the NHS). The move towards more ‘car towns’ will only expand and entrench (because it is hard to ‘undo’ poor infrastructure planning) this emerging crisis.

Housing planning is too often framed in terms of physical space but it clearly goes further than the physical space – the walls and a roof - in which one lives. Housing planning has to fully acknowledge the availability of social services such as NHS capacity, education availability and policing resources. Then there are practicalities around electricity supply, sewerage transport and processing, road capacity and food supply.

Those who consider themselves socially-progressive will often proclaim, “We need to build more houses!” but, unless they pay attention to this kind of detail, the truth is they may be in fact encouraging obesity, air pollution and a strain on public services – not least hospitals where ambulances queuing at A & E is now not an uncommon site in Britain’s large city areas.
‘Goldenbelts’

The proclamation of, “We need to build more houses!” is often matched with talk about ‘affordable housing’ – particularly in relation to building on greenbelt where its destruction is seen as a worthy trade-off for social equality. Inequality – the growing divide and segregation between rich and poor - is in fact driven by a housing strategy which allows urban sprawl. 

The realpolitik is when local councils sell off greenbelt land to developers, they are selling to private companies (the idea of a state-owned house-builder is long dead, and any efforts to revive it are largely tokenistic). These private companies, answering as they do to shareholders, naturally have less interest in building affordable homes and more interest in catering for the premium end of the marketing where higher profit yields are more likely to be found. In building over greenbelt land, they are not creating a more socially-equal utopia, they are creating ‘goldenbelts’ – fringes of wealth around city areas whilst the centres, both the main centres and more localised ‘mini-centres’, suffer stagnation.

Reports have highlighted time and time again that there is sufficient brownfield sites out there for a first phase of large-scale housing development – be that redundant industrial land or the more recent trend of stagnating retail parks (the case of Tesco’s fading superstore empire being a prime example). Developers are often buying up these brownfield sites – and in doing so creating ‘landbanks’ – but they are not developing on them because, relatively speaking, they are not as cost effective as the ‘blank canvas’ that greenbelt offers.

It is not socially-progressive to proclaim, “We need more affordable housing!” and in turn adopt a non-interventionist policy when it comes to brownfield sites whilst at the same time adopting an intervention policy by releasing greenbelt. This is in fact socially-negligent. Local authorities and the government need to incentivise brownfield housing, through underwriting costs around upgrading utilities, removing asbestos etc., providing tax incentives and legally committing developers to timescales once they have planning permission. This kind of strategy needs to be viewed – by both politicians and the voting taxpayer - as investment in sustainability rather than a burden, as it prevents the negative tends described above.

If there is an economic and political incentive, then poor quality brownfield land is regenerated, to the benefit of the previous city inhabitants who were previously close to derelict land, future inhabitants who benefit from homes, and all those who use the adjoining green belt.

‘Greenbelt for All’

There is a perception that greenbelt only benefits those living next door to it. This, again, is a misconception. There are in fact many well-documented benefits from greenbelt.

The Greenbelt in Britain, according to CPRE documentation, serves a number functions; 38% is arable and horticulture land (i.e. producing local food production vital to reduce our carbon emissions from food imports); 29% is woodland (vital for carbon capture, air quality- ‘ventilation’, flood prevention and biodiversity), 14% ‘improved’ grassland and semi- natural grass (biodiversity, recreational activities), 1% heath and bogs (biodiversity, carbon capture), 1% standing water (1%). Greenbelt is generally not ‘unused’ scrubland as some of the proponents of more housing seem to assume.

It is important to remember, firstly, that greenbelt is not simply something that has occurred without thought – it is in fact a deliberate and historic policy of countryside protection, largely implemented in England (the most populated and urbanised country of the British Isles). It is also worth clarifying that this policy of protection is not simply about protecting rural communities – part of our society’s much-celebrated diversity – but about a wider policy of societal-protection, as a way of off-setting the negative side-effects of large city areas.

Such negative side-effects tend to impact the poorest the most. For example, flooding – caused by a changing climate and exacerbated by increasing amounts of hard-surfaced concrete which prevents drainage and causes faster ‘run off’ - tends to be most damaging in the built-up, flatter areas of inner-cities. And from there, it is likely to be those people with the tighter cashflows and the most basic insurance – or none at all - who then struggle to recover from such damage.

Similarly, with factors such as Brexit, a rising global population and global warming (causing desertification), there will be more pressure on food supplies in Britain. As cheap imports reduce, Britain’s countryside is going to be more needed for food provision. A socially-progressive policy would involve proactively revitalising our rural areas, through carefully-planned parcels of ‘upwardly inclined’ housing and investment in the agricultural industries, rather than turning these areas into large swathes of faceless dormitory housing for the well-off.

It is also worth noting the amount of walking and cycling groups (for retirees in the week and resting-workers at the weekends), Duke of Edinburgh Award groups, the recent move towards ‘Forest Schools’ in the education system and so on who all benefit from greenbelt. In short, the greenbelt is a good place to go out for an afternoon's jaunt - relaxation without having to get on an aeroplane. This matters – humankind since its early days has always mixed life in the cave with life in open green spaces, and this pattern of life contributes to our vitality. Even around fenced-off private farmland there are footpaths and pockets of open woodland, commons, brooks, ponds and meadows which are open to all. It is worth observing nobody ever goes to a housing estate to clear their mind.

Sometimes there is a vague promise to replace greenbelt with parks or even by ‘re-wilding’ other areas. Yet this promise, even if fulfilled through the mass planting of saplings, will not replace the effectiveness of established 20 – 50 foot mature trees. Nor will it will replace semi-rural agricultural communities or the delicate, interconnected balance of wildlife that tends to take centuries to establish.

‘Misguided Ideology and Negligence - or Damn Right Deceit?’

This short piece intends to counter some of the ‘socially-progressive’ styled arguments around using greenbelt for housing. Within it the suggestion is that those politicians (and their supporters) making such arguments are perhaps na├»ve, thinking only in broad brushstrokes – and to that end, they may be charged with negligence. This is surely damning enough and the public should surely be wary about re-electing people into office without the wherewithal and tenacity to fulfil their roles. Those involved in the planning of GMSF in the first place have some making-up to do - notice has been served.

However, if the facts are laid bare – if the devil in the detail about greenbelt housing is revealed to them – and our elected representatives still proceed regardless, what then? There surely must be an argument that, rather than being misguided, this particular group of politicians are perhaps being deliberately deceitful. It might be said they are embarking on a deliberate strategy of creating a mirage of growth and social progress in order to create a feel-good factor and subsequently boost their own election credentials. In this instance, the public must act decisively to ensure such self-serving individuals are exposed and thrown out of office forthwith – and prevented from any return. Those in office now, with influence over the forthcoming direction of GMSF, should take heed.

I now know what it means to be a floating voter.