If you are from a rural or semi-rural part of the UK, you will be familiar with the heated debate concerning which is more important: building affordable housing or protecting the green belt. While standing as a Labour candidate in the recent local elections, the only question put to me by a member of the electorate was my position on this issue. Even to those with negligible interest in political affairs, this is a subject that inspires impassioned opinions.
Last month, a lengthy appeal for the construction of a development named Drake Park, which would have involved building 1,024 new homes, including 500 affordable properties, on green belt land in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, was overturned by the Secretary of State. Following the decision, Cllr Andrew Kelly tweeted that he was “Delighted the Government agrees with [Elmbridge Borough Council] and protects our local Green Belt”, an opinion shared by many local residents. For local people on limited incomes, however, the decision was met with a sense of despair.
Beneath its exterior of greenery and affluence, Surrey is an area of troubling inequality. In Walton-on-Thames, for instance, the average price of a property has risen from £89,475 in 1995 to £534,680 in 2018 – an increase of approximately 498%. The Guardian’s analysis of Land Registry and HMRC data in 2015 revealed that, in 1995, homes cost around 3.2 to 4.4 times the median salary of the area. In Surrey, however, the average property now costs over 15 times the median salary – a reality that has resulted in the departure of many young people, unable to afford these skyrocketing prices, from the area in which they grew up.
For those living below the poverty line, the situation is particularly dire. Last year, reliance on foodbanks in Surrey increased by around 20% compared to 2016 – over three times the national average of an annual increase of 6%. In some parts of Walton-on-Thames, 30% of children are living in poverty – 3 times the Surrey average of 10%, of which two thirds are from working households. There are also currently 2,300 people on the housing register at any one time in Elmbridge, with an average of just 250 vacancies per year. A lack of temporary accommodation in the area also means that people in desperate situations, often with limited access to transport due to personal finances, are forced to move away from their workplaces, educational institutions, healthcare providers and loved ones. Meanwhile, Elmbridge Borough Council built just 480 affordable homes between 2011 and 2018, with just 100 developments planned for the forthcoming year.
The term “affordable housing” is also problematic in and of itself, with the government website explaining vaguely that ‘Affordable housing should include provisions to remain at an affordable price for future eligible households or for the subsidy to be recycled for alternative affordable housing provision’ and that ‘Affordable Rent is subject to rent controls that require a rent of no more than 80 per cent of the local market rent’. However, with the average rental property in Walton-on-Thames currently on the market at £2,395, 80% of that price – £1,916 – would still be far beyond the means of a full time minimum wage worker earning £1,050 per month, not to mention those relying on benefits for everyday survival.
What, then, is the solution? To continue to examine this case study, Elmbridge Borough Council recently announced plans ‘to establish a Council-owned housing company with the aim of building homes to meet the needs of local residents.’ In order to fulfil that promise, it is clear that they must urgently provide considerably more genuinely affordable housing in order to provide for the most vulnerable members of the community.
The defensiveness over the protection of the local green belt by residents in areas such as Elmbridge is understandable to a degree – it is an area known for its natural beauty, and, given the recent revelation that over 40 towns and cities in the UK have reached or exceeded the Word Health Organisation’s air pollution limits, safeguarding greenery in residential areas is becoming increasingly important to many. Using the protection of the green belt as rationale for failing to provide affordable housing, however, cannot be considered morally justifiable. With homelessness having increased by 169% since 2010 across the UK and people relying on charitable organisations such as Elmbridge Rentstart, which helped a total of 421 local people last year, due to insufficient provisions from local authorities, the lack of affordable housing is a crisis in human welfare.
Elmbridge is by no means an isolated case – these debates are occurring throughout the United Kingdom. Local authorities must provide sufficient social and affordable housing and temporary accommodation, be it by developing on brownfield sites or purchasing and converting existing properties, in order to justify opposition to developing on green belt land. If that proves impossible, they must consider whether their views on the green belt are an adequate defence for allowing members of their electorate to go without food and shelter. Failure to do so is a failure not just to fulfil their duties to local residents, but also to demonstrate basic human empathy, compassion and decency.