The claim

“In the UK and England at the moment we’ve got about 9 per cent of land developed. All we need to do is build on another 2-3 per cent of land and we’ll have solved a housing problem.”
Nick Boles, 29 November 2012

The background

New planning minister Nick Boles caused quite a splash last night as he unveiled his vision of how we are going to beat the housing crisis.

The green belt – the bands of open land surrounding towns and cities that developers are forbidden to touch – will remain off limits.

But Mr Boles put himself on collision course with those who want to restrict new housing in the countryside by confirming that there will be no let-up in the government’s drive for more development in rural areas.

He told the BBC’s Newsnight programme: “We’re going to protect the greenbelt but if people want to have housing for their kids they have got to accept we need to build more on some open land.

“In the UK and England at the moment we’ve got about 9 per cent of land developed. All we need to do is build on another 2-3 per cent of land and we’ll have solved a housing problem.”

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) called on Mr Boles to “get serious” and said 12 per cent of England’s land is already built on, not 9 per cent.

The analysis

How much of the country is built on?

It depends which country you’re talking about, and Mr Boles’s meaningless reference to “the UK and England” doesn’t help us much there.

Since the Westminster government is only in charge of planning in England, that is presumably what Mr Boles ought to be focussing on.

Probably the best recent survey of land use across the UK is the National Ecosystem Assessment, which concludes that 10.6 per cent of England is classified as “urban”.

The figures for the rest of the UK are much lower – 4.1 per cent of Wales, 3.6 per cent of Northern Ireland and just 1.9 per cent of Scotland are made up of urban areas. So the average figure for the UK as a whole is 6.8 per cent.

These numbers are all based on satellite images collected in the Centre for Ecology and Hyrdology’s Land Cover Map 2000.

But a different methodology for calculating built-up areas, based on government population figures, yields higher estimates. Now 9.5 per cent of the UK and 14.6 per cent of England are considered urban.

So Mr Boles may be slightly playing down the urbanisation of England, but there are figures that put him in the right ballpark.

And his broader point, that urban sprawl is not as extensive as many of us might assume it to be, may well be right.

It’s worth noting that not all this “urban” land is covered in concrete. The category includes gardens, parks, allotments, playing fields and so on. Estimates of how much of the actual land classified as urban is really green space vary wildly from 14 to 54 per cent.

Right. Let’s get building then…

Hang on a minute. This doesn’t mean that 85 or 90 per cent of land in England is ready for the developers to roll in. Clearly, not all land is suitable for housebuilding, for a range of reasons.

Hilly, boggy or rocky land is probably out, as are areas prone to flooding or too near the coast. We haven’t yet come up with any sensible way of working out an accurate percentage of land unsuitable for development for physical reasons.

Then there are the national parks and green belt zones which are unlikely to be made available to developers for political reasons. Green belt land alone accounts for 13 per cent of England.

Perhaps most importantly of all, there’s the question of regional supply and demand.

We know that housebuilders are building far fewer houses than are needed to meet the demands of a growing population, but the gap is likely to be particulary acute in London and the South East.

Government projections are that there will be an average of around 230,000 extra households every year in England until 2033, and we are only managing to complete just over 100,000 properties.

The biggest population increases are expected in the capital and south east England. Housebuilding completions are in decline in both areas.

The Institute of Public Policy Research estimates a shortfall of 750,000 homes by 2025, with 400,000 of those homes needed in London and the South East

So when Mr Boles talks about increasing the amount of urban space in England by 2 or 3 per cent of the total area (about 1,500 square miles, or two Londons) it’s unlikely that this will be spread out equally around the whole of the country.

The lion’s share of the new development would probably take place in London, already by far the most crowded part of the UK, and the South East, the English region with the third hightest population density.

The verdict

Mr Boles hasn’t plucked the figure of 9 per cent out of thin air, and it’s interesting to note that urban sprawl covers a surprisingly small area.

But like many of the supposedly simple solutions to the housing crisis that have been proposed, building more homes in rural England is a bit more complicated than it looks.

Not that Mr Boles’s opponents have any quick fixes up their sleeve that really stand up to scrutiny either.

Filling empty homes would certainly help alleviate some of the pressure on housing, but it’s not a magic bullet.

At the latest count, there are 259,842 homes in England that have been empty for longer than six months, only 55,000 of them in London and the South East.

If we somehow managed to get all those homes filled overnight, that would only satisfy national demand for one year.

CPRE want the government to focus on previously-developed “brownfield” land – which they say could provide space for 1.5 million new homes.

But the Home Builders Federation, which represents the UK’s biggest developers, says the industry has already been building 80 per cent of its homes on brownfield sites in the last few years.

Government “brownfield first” policies have been tried in the past but haven’t worked, a spokesman told us. Some of the land is just too expensive and technically difficult to build on.

Brownfield is more suitable for blocks of flats but not larger homes with gardens, and the government found that land prices can be driven up even more in crowded areas, making things even harder for first-time buyers.

There are few easy answers, but Mr Boles’s comments give us an insight into where the political battle will be fought in the coming years.

By Patrick Worrall