Due to its fiercely protected green belt, Oxford has become the UK’s least affordable city in which to live. The ratio of housing costs to wages is higher than anywhere else. It is unsurprising that half of those who work in Oxford commute into the city when a typical property costs over 11 times average annual earnings. The problem has reached the stage where the city council admits that the housing crisis is “significantly undermining [Oxford’s] future”. Despite this, Oxford’s green belt is passionately defended by campaigners who oppose plans to build 10,000 new homes on it.
In Cambridge, on the other hand, the council has worked with surrounding areas more effectively, prompting a higher rate of house-building. The rate of employment growth, thanks in part to lower rents, is higher than in Oxford, making the city a more appealing place to work. If for no other reason, we should oppose the continued defence of the green belt to stop the Tabs getting ahead.
But the problem of green belts extends beyond Oxford. In England, they take up more than three times the amount of land of all other man-made structures. Given this artificial containment of our cities, it is no wonder that house prices rose 350 percent in the last half of the twentieth century. Yet green belts, relics of the post-war enthusiasim for state management, remain in place.
The present housing crisis shows how bad the idea originally was. Planning restrictions have kept supply well below demand, and yet politicians continue to defend the green belt despite even the OECD urging the government to make policy-changes. We are trapped in a ridiculous situation, with major cities swamped by the protected land that surrounds them and residents paying soaring prices for increasingly cramped accommodation. Many workers are now forced into growing commuter towns while the public transport system struggles to cope. The green belt, intended to prevent the spread of urban areas, has simply shifted the problem of urban expansion to areas outside the main cities. The current system is clearly outdated, and if there is any hope of meeting the rising demand for housing in Oxford and nationwide the belt must be abolished.
Defenders of green belts claim that they provide idyllic paradises of green space and natural beauty much valued by those who live in our cities. So tell me, when was the last time you ventured out of the Oxford bubble towards Abingdon or Kidlington rather than head to Christ Church Meadow for some green space? Even if they were more accessible than inner-city parks, with more than a third of green belt land used for intensive farming it’s unsurprising that city residents don’t use it as their escape. While there are no doubt spots of beauty in green belts, areas of genuine beauty or environmental significance don’t require the green belt to protect them. For land which possesses no such value but is currently protected by the green belt, our situation demands we roll out the diggers.
Since green belts dwarf the cities they are designed to protect, we would only need to build on a tiny part of them in order to meet housing demand. The Adam Smith Institute estimates that just removing the restrictions on building on land within a ten-minute walk of a station would make room for one million new homes around London, significantly easing the capital’s housing crisis while only encroaching on four percent of the city’s green belt. Allowing houses to be built on such a small proportion of green belt land would make a much bigger difference to the lives of those struggling with the costs of renting than it would to the overall size of green belts. Ditching them would have a great impact on the housing crisis we face as a country, and particularly in cities like London and Oxford where there is not enough accommodation to keep up with demand. We must recognise the failure of current housing policy. It is time to concrete the green belt.