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Is it time to slacken the grey belt?


The "grey belt" is sometimes mistaken for its glamorous sister, the "green belt" and thereby misunderstood. In practice it is far less lovely. It does not delight us with the unmolested and inviting vision of the rural idyll. It is the mistress of miscellaneous land use that fringes around our cities a dubious detritus of low density, low rise housing, horsey culture, fragmented commercial use and storage.


The grey belt has neither the energy of the urban, nor the tranquillity of the rural. It is the colourless wasteland its name implies.


In its report "More good Homes and a Better United Kingdom" the RICS Housing Commission has identified the need to create a new planning use for land. A specific allocation of land for affordable homes for rent, where no other housing use would be permitted. In this way the value of the land would be kept low. With capital grant subsidy, new low cost homes could be built on it and let at low rents reducing the need to fund tenants with housing benefit.


But where will such land be allocated and where will such homes be built? Is it not now time to slacken the grey belt to allow for its development for low cost affordable housing for rent? We have an opportunity to relax restrictions on sites around the urban zone while claiming something of value for the public realm. Grey belt on the fringe of our cities can be turned into affordable and sustainable housing sites.


Development in green belt is always contentious. Not only is there understandably an outcry as to the destruction of countryside but infrastructure has to be laid on. Roads, services, schools, shopping and recreational facilities that make a significant impact in the countryside. With small sites on the urban fringe far less infrastructure would be necessary. Transport, education and shopping are often readily available.


Our duty as a Society to subsidise housing should not be without reciprocity. We should feel entitled to demand commitment from the tenants for whom we provide subsidised homes. Minimal parking requirements in return for enhanced public transport services. Micro homes for single person households, no smoking zones in flat blocks.


Costs should be kept low. New homes would be built to sustainable building codes ensuring low cost of energy with communal heating and solar systems. Common denominators of design would be used to reduce building costs and high levels of landscaping and allotment gardens to communal spaces that encourage community participation among residents.


We must built more low cost homes, particularly in our cities. We must reduce the housing benefit bill that has increased to meet ever higher rents. New towns are a distant distraction that requires years of planning. Slackening the grey belt would give us room to breathe.

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