The Economist reviews housing prices in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, and what do you know, it finds that high housing prices are due to urban planning. “The biggest constraint on development in London is the Green Belt,” says the magazine that calls itself a newspaper. “Tt runs (with perforations) all around London, to a depth of up to 50 miles, and bans almost all building on half a million hectares of land around the city.”
Ah, but Britain has 62 million people in an area slightly smaller than the state of Oregon (94,000 vs. 98,000 square miles), so those greenbelts are needed to preserve farms, forests, and open space, right? Not really.
As a BBC writer points out, urban areas cover just 6.8 percent of the United Kingdom (10.6 percent of England, 1.3 percent of Scotland, 3.6 percent of Northern Ireland, and 4.1 percent of Wales). Moreover, much of the land inside those urban areas is open space, so less than 2.3 percent of England, and even smaller proportions of the rest of the kingdom, have been “paved over.”
If Britain had been allowed to grow unimpeded by greenbelts and planners, urban areas might have spread out to, perhaps, 15 or 20 percent of the country (more of England, less of the other countries), and probably would have included a higher percentage of green spaces within them. This hardly sounds like a disaster and is far from “paving over the nation.”
One of the comments on the BBC article pointed out that Britain is denser than China, which the commenter through proved that Britain needed all those planning rules, when all it really proved is that China needs them even less. Connecticut is denser than Britain, and its urban densities are much less than the U.S. average, yet it has many lovely rural areas covering (depending how you define rural) 60 to 70 percent of the state.
What American planners call smart growth (and what conservative critics call Agenda 21) was actually invented in Britain. Planners there call it town & country planning, after the Town & Country Planning Act of 1947, which in turn was named after a 1932 book, Town and Countryside, by English urban planner Thomas Sharp. Sharp opposed suburbs that attempted to provide the best of urban and rural and urged that cities create greenbelts and growth boundaries, inside of which would be built “great new blocks of flats which will house a considerable portion of the population of the future town.”
The latest mantra is that dense cities are more sustainable. Four British urban analysts reviewed this idea in no less than the Journal of the American Planning Association. “The current planning policy strategies for land use and transport have virtually no impact on the major long-term increases in resource and energy consumption,” they found. Instead of being sustainable, these policies “generally tend to increase costs and reduce economic competitiveness.” Moreover, “the potential socioeconomic consequences of less housing choice, crowding, and congestion may outweigh its very modest CO2 reduction benefits.”
As these analysts hint, people who support Britain’s land-use policies are largely unaware of (or don’t care about) the huge social impacts of their programs: inferior housing, limited social mobility, and a business-hostile environment. Meanwhile, the benefits they claim for their policies are almost purely fantasy. Britain, as well as the American states that have followed that country’s lead (not to mention those in other countries), should abandon these policies as rapidly as possible.