The CPRE must choose between rural and suburban England

Another day, another naive report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), an organisation which perpetuates the already dismal housing crisis.

They appear to have “discovered” that English brownfield sites have a capacity for one million homes. This data is in itself unremarkable as such information is freely available and known to both government and planners alike. What is astonishing, however, is that the CPRE has trumpeted this land as a solution to the housing crisis.

Their data suggests brownfield sites will be inadequate to meet housing needs in some areas within a few years, but that was not how it was marketed. The CPRE instead suggests that brownfield sites are currently unexploited and could be an alternative source of development land. This is patently false – the current planning policy already prioritises brownfield sites.

Even according to their unrealistically low projections of housing demand, there is no region in the country where a policy of entirely brownfield development will be sufficient over the next decade. Using more realistic projections, the sites they identified will only meet one-sixth of housing demand need in the medium term.

Rather than being a factual contribution to the housing debate, the report has succumbed to the pleas of the nimby brigade. This fantasy no doubt appeals to suburban and rural residents who feel threatened by the prospect of new housing.

It is this constituency that makes up the backbone of CPRE, both in terms of its volunteers and funding. This report appears, therefore, to be a tool for their local campaigners to demand that houses be built elsewhere, on a mythical urban site located far, far away.

The CPRE, consciously or otherwise, uses the political conditions created by the current planning system to its advantage. Under the current discretionary planning system, every development is put to a vote of the local council. The local homeowners that often make up the councils are averse to new housing developments, largely due to the fact that their own homes are in part valued based on the surrounding environment.

Anything that potentially threatens the local area and puts pressure on its amenities will have a negative effect on housing value. It follows, therefore, that areas which have a majority of homeowners will oppose new housing and will use the planning system to prevent new development. It is these vested interests that the CPRE serves.

This situation leads to several important results. The main advantage from the perspective of the CPRE is that it creates opposition to development around cities, allowing them to pose as defenders of the green belt and gain support from those communities.

However, it also prevents urbanisation. Many of the graceful boulevards of Fitzrovia or Bloomsbury were built gradually from smaller houses of a particular style. This gradual process of tasteful and popular upward extension was the norm – until it was made impossible by the current planning system.

The inability to build either up or out in existing areas has profound consequences. To begin with, aspirational individuals and families cannot afford to live in major cities. As a result, the urban housing shortage displaces people to surrounding rural areas, meaning that individuals must commute. This, in turn, creates a severe housing crisis in rural areas as well as urban ones.

Rural house prices are roughly ten times the average rural income, which fuels growing rural homelessness and poverty as well as prices essential workers out of communities that need them. Lack of housing for the local population means rural communities stagnate, the young are priced out, and the population declines. Essential services such as public transport, GP surgeries, and schools are then put at risk as there is no longer enough demand to sustain them.

It appears that the CPRE is stuck in a bind. The organisation’s rural and suburban supporters push for the preservation of their surroundings, but a defence of the current planning system will create severe long-term problems for rural England and the very people the CPRE supposedly serves.

The organisation attempts to square the circle by supporting affordable rural housing, yet this misses the crucial point: a system which prevents development creates a shortage of housing, both rural and urban, which leads in turn to even higher prices for existing properties.

If the CPRE truly wishes to protect rural England, it must find a feasible way to promote large-scale housebuilding which does not damage the rural landscape.

We will see whether it will break its alliance with homeowners and find a politically achievable way of enabling densification through the two-story suburban sprawl that makes up most of our cities. The yimby movement has put these policies forward. We eagerly await the CPRE’s response.

Written by Sam Watling

Sam Watling is Director of Brighton Yimby, a grassroots organisation that seeks to end Brighton's housing crisis with the support of local people.