SECURING THE FUTURE

Why build on flood plain when there’s plenty of land to meet the housing
needs of key workers and a growing population? CIWEM Executive
Director, Nick Reeves, makes the case for land reform.

The launch last March of „Securing the Future‟, the government‟s UK
strategy for sustainable development, was a landmark event that was
virtually ignored by the media. Not even the presence of Prime Minister
Tony Blair, and some of his Cabinet „heavy-weights‟, could excite the
normally excitable press. Which is a pity because the Prime Minister made
some very clear and unambiguous statements about the need to avoid
“…models of development which are simply unsustainable”; and said that
“…sustainable development, across the UK, is not an option – it‟s a
necessity”. In effect Tony Blair promised that future development would
only take place within environmental limits and that there would be cross-
departmental commitment to this. Great stuff and it‟s in the strategy
document too! Well, so you‟d think….

Because, meantime, we have the government‟s flagship Sustainable
Communities Plan which means that thousands of new homes will be built
on – or very near – floodplain. A Plan less sustainable you could hardly
imagine since it is set to exceed environmental limits. And, perversely,
many of these homes will be built in areas of the south-east of England
where there are also problems of water scarcity – made worse by growing
demand for water on tap. Former Ministers for Housing and for
Regeneration, Keith Hill MP and Lord Rooker, respectively, have said that
the south-east of England has yet to realise its full economic potential and
that new communities and new housing in this part of the country are
essential for the economic growth and regeneration of the region. They
are forgetting, of course, that London and its hinterlands have almost
certainly exceeded their environmental limits, proving that government
priorities are not environmental at all, but economic.

Few can deny that there is indeed a housing crisis. A lack of affordable
housing to meet the needs of low paid key workers such as nurses,
teachers, police officers etc. is a serious problem. (Although I am
perplexed by the fact that key workers are also low paid. If such people
are essential to society why isn‟t this recognised with better pay and
conditions that would allow them to participate in the housing market?)
But why endanger the lives and property of people by building on land at
risk of flooding? It‟s both unnecessary and plain daft. Why add to the 10%
of the population of England and Wales who already live in fear of
flooding? And why spend millions of pounds on techno-fix flood defence
schemes when we can build elsewhere?

Around 70% of the land in this country is owned by 0.6% of the population
which, when put into context, means that just 158,000 families own 41
million acres of land while 24 million families live on 4 million acres. Much of
it does not appear on the land register and we have no idea of its
condition or status. This means that there is, potentially, plenty of land
available for housing development and that the notion of land scarcity is
just a myth. If this or any other government is serious about creating
sustainable and equitable communities, and is serious about securing the
future of people now and in the future, it is time to have a public debate
on land reform in Britain with changes in planning law that respects
environmental limits and encourages the redistribution of land.

The population of the UK has doubled since the 1950s and will continue to
grow to alarmingly unsustainable levels in certain parts of the country.
High density housing on or near flood plain – requiring expensive flood
defence schemes – is not the answer when alternative solutions are also
possible. But, it will mean large tracts of private and publicly owned land
being given up for housing for the common good, and begs the question
is any government brave enough to put land reform on the political
agenda? Somehow I doubt it. Although, as I write, the government is
considering a green light to new development on Green Belt in one of the
four growth areas designated by Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott –
showing that Ministers are prepared to take on the green lobby at least.

Present housing shortages have been artificially created as a result of
barmy planning laws and outmoded views on land ownership that are no
longer relevant in one of the worlds most densely populated countries.
Consequently, a fall in housing supply is crippling local economies,
especially in small communities. It is wrong that people are forced to
move away from where they grew up and from where they would like to
live, work and raise families. Shops, pubs and schools suffer and local
businesses lose a pool of labour while planning applications for rural
housing are dismissed out of hand, regardless of local demand. And all
because of short-sighted national and regional planning policies. The
social engineering of successive governments has led to soaring house
prices and plans to build on land at risk of flooding requiring expensive
techno-fix flood defence schemes.

Nick Reeves
June 2005

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