Sunday Times – names one property consultant, one planning consultant and one dumb tank bod. I rarely agree with any of them on their bulldozer approach to the Green Belt but this is desperate stuff. Everyone has a right to free speech on the Green Belt and the more debate the better.
Property industry lobbyists have been accused of using think tanks, charities and even MPs as “front operations” in a push to ease restrictions and allow massive new housebuilding projects on greenfield and greenbelt land.
An investigation by The Sunday Times has found that a recent spate of apparently independent reports calling for greenbelt development were funded by, or closely linked to, the same small group of housing industry consultants.
Countryside campaigners said policymaking was being “captured” by the development lobby with “false claims” about the need for extensive building in the countryside.
However, the property consultants argue that their involvement in the reports simply amounted to their professional judgment that the green belt was often of low environmental value, and that it restricted housing supply and priced a growing population out of homes.
Last year, five significant reports were published calling for the green belt to be reduced or scrapped. In 2015 there were three. This compares with only a handful in the previous decade.
The most recent, by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for London’s planning and built environment, in October 2016, demanded the “modernisation” of the green belt to become a “green web” laced with “dense suburban development”.
In a foreword to the report, the APPG’s chairwoman, the Labour MP Rupa Huq, warned against “resisting the tide like King Canute”.
The report was co-authored by Jonathan Manns, who is director of planning at Colliers International, a property consultancy used by many big housebuilders. The company confirmed last week it had also co-funded the APPG’s report.
Manns also sat on the steering group for a report by the London School of Economics (LSE) last August that proposed opening up a stretch of green belt for development as a suburban “corridor”.
Alongside him on the four-strong steering group was Barney Stringer, director of a property consultancy called Quod, which acts for many housebuilders, including Barratt Homes and Berkeley.
In its report, the LSE thanked Stringer and Manns, but said “the content of the report does not necessarily reflect either their individual views or those of their organisation”.
Quod has been closely involved with at least four of the recent anti-greenbelt reports. Another Quod director, John Rhodes, chaired an influential government- appointed “expert group” whose March 2016 report said ministers should consider establishing more “growth points” in the green belt.
A February 2016 document by the housing charity Shelter calling for the “controlled release” of greenbelt land was also co-written by Quod. Shelter said it had received no funding from the consultancy.
Quod co-authored a report by the business lobby London First demanding a “re-examination of the green belt”. The reports did not make clear that Quod represented developers.
Another anti-greenbelt report in January 2016 was written by Tom Papworth, a senior policy adviser at the Council of Mortgage Lenders, for the Adam Smith Institute. The institute said it had not received any funding from developers.
Alice Roberts, head of green space campaigns at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “Developers have been extremely clever. They have managed to create the impression of a change of mood because the public and media see reports from reputable organisations and understandably think they are objective.
“They don’t realise they are highly selective readings of the evidence and essentially front operations for the industry.”
Manns said he saw no conflict of interest in his involvement in the reports, saying: “My position is based on my professional judgment.” Citing a statistic from the LSE report, he added: “ The London green belt is now 3½ times the size of the city itself, and we need a rational debate about its future.”
Rhodes said Quod’s greenbelt reports were not part of any co-ordinated campaign or client commission.
Theresa May’s Government is due to announce a major shift in housing policy by placing greater emphasis on renters with plans to deliver more affordable rental properties.
Gavin Barwell, the housing minister, said the Government intended to encourage more housebuilding of all kinds, including more social housing. But he insisted the plans, due to be published in a white paper this week, would not propose any changes to the rules of building on the green belt.
He acknowledged the proposals would represent a “change in tone” from previous Conservative policy and Margaret Thatcher’s “home-owning democracy” advanced by David Cameron.
It will include proposals to amend planning rules to enable councils to plan for more build-to-rent-properties as well as measures to ensure more secure, longer term tenancies are available in the private rented sector.
Speaking on ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme, he added: “We are not going to weaken the protections. We have a clear manifesto commitment. There is no need to take huge tracts of land out of the green belt to solve the housing crisis.”
“They [councils] can take land out of the green belt in exceptional circumstances but they should have looked at every alternative first. That policy is not going change.”
The white paper will outline steps to ensure longer-term tenancies are available in private rented schemes to give renting families more stability.