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Guest blog: Solving the housing crisis - Increasing housing densities or protecting the greenbelt?

The UK's housing crisis is front and centre of the political agenda at present; barely a week goes by without headlines highlighting the lack of affordable housing, low levels of house building or concerns over the safety and quality of existing housing stock.

Alok Sharma, our new Housing Minister has inherited responsibility for delivering the Conservative Party’s proposed solution, namely the wide-ranging package of reforms set out in the Housing White Paper. His brief which will be under very close scrutiny, given the recent election results and his predecessor, Gavin Barwell's proximity to the Prime Minister. In addition, the recent tragedy at Grenfell Tower has raised concerns about the safety of some publicly owned residential towers - with a recent report by the Housing & Finance Institute calling for a move away from the trend for high rise buildings and towards lower density housing solutions.

If this call to move away from high density housing is echoed by the Grenfell Tower public inquiry, then the Government may need to seriously rethink its current housing policies. Both the Housing White Paper and the Conservative Manifesto focus on increasing housing densities as a way to improve supply. This should not be a surprised, given that both documents also pledge to maintain protections on the Green Belt, which encircles most major cities and urban conurbations.

If the Government is to move away from building taller residential developments, then the only options available to increase housing densities are to build smaller houses, or to build them closer together. In London, and indeed many other cities, houses are already tightly packed, so there is not much scope for moving them closer together. Reducing unit sizes is rarely a realistic option, due to the increasing popularity of local minimum space standards, and the depressing effect that smaller room sizes can have on the sales price of the units themselves.  

If increasing housing density by providing taller buildings is no longer an attractive option; then the Housing Minister will have find more land in, or adjacent to, major conurbations for housing developments. In much of the country, this will mean releasing land from the Green Belt.

Green belt releases tend to be notoriously unpopular amongst the general public, who tend to equate the ‘green belt’ with the open countryside – not realising that the green belt also includes low-quality brownfield sites, which could be developed with minimal adverse effects on the wider area. Releasing land from the green belt also contradicts pledges to protect the designation made by the Government in both the Conservative Manifesto and the Housing White Paper, which the Government has committed to deliver.  

Whilst very little is certain in politics, I think it is probably safe to say that our new Housing Minister has some difficult decisions ahead. With revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework expected before the end of the year, and a standardised approach to calculating a local authority’s housing land supply due imminently; we are likely to find out his approach to them much sooner than anticipated.

Posted by Nicola Gooch on 16 August 2017