Rochdale councillor John Blundell thinks we have little other option

Land is a commodity in short supply. It is not something we can simply produce more of in a factory or unearth in greater quantities from a mine. And, like anything else that is scarce, land is expensive. 

The greenbelt legislation introduced by Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government was a means of protecting this most precious of assets. The Attlee administration was concerned with finding a way to manage urban sprawl – the encroachment of the city into surrounding rural areas. The idea was to encircle urban areas within a ring of protected land upon which building was restricted, thereby keeping a city’s urban footprint strictly circumscribed.

At the time, the policy was largely successful in achieving its stated aims, but now, some 70 years on, this ageing piece of legislation is preventing us from enacting sensible and sustainable new policies to address uniquely twenty-first century problems of housing supply and land management.

But before we look forward, lets go back.

Imagine: no income tax and no tax evasion – it is difficult to hide land in the Cayman Islands

The nineteenth century economist Henry George believed that land was so scarce that an annual tax, equating to a percentage of its capital value, should be levied upon it. Winston Churchill advocated a tax like this early in his career, reasoning that it made little sense for the state to spend so much on public works and services – such as schools, libraries and, in the present-day, Metrolink stations – only for the owners of the land adjacent to those works to reap the reward with a rise in the value of their asset. 

The appeal of such a land tax is threefold. Firstly, land in high demand would have a high rateable value, forcing its owner to build more densely on it, which would, in turn, increase the supply of housing and employment space. More occupants on the same footprint would be the only way they could cover their costs. 

Secondly, with the revenue from a land tax, we could abolish income tax. Instead, taxes would be collected through rents (for both employment space and homes). Imagine: no income tax and no tax evasion – it is difficult to hide land in the Cayman Islands.

Granted, rents would be higher, but not by as much as you might imagine, mainly because the supply of homes would increase dramatically as land banking would now cost developers money. 

A housing firm buying a scrap bit of land in Didsbury or Bamford would have to pay tax on the value of that land, meaning they would either have to build on it (and provide much-needed homes) to generate income to cover their costs, or else sell it to someone who could. 

When public amenities are put in place, the incentive to build densely around them would become even greater because the value of the land would increase, putting more pressure on landowners. The Land Value Tax would be one way of encouraging development in urban areas.

Elton Reservoir Bury
Earlier this year hundreds protested plans to build thousands of new homes next to Elton reservoir in Bury. MPBBS

In case anybody hasn’t noticed, Greater Manchester – except for its canals and the River Mersey – is land-locked. We therefore have to make the land that we do have work as efficiently as possible. 

In the past, particularly during the white heat of the Industrial Revolution, the British tended to invade and colonise other countries in order to increase their land and resources. The British Empire was originally about satisfying the demand to grow cotton, produce food, mine materials and export surplus capital and people. 

Empire-building, at least in its early stages, was less a search for imperial prestige than a ruthless hunt for more and more land. The calculus involved was pure economics. And the Empire’s ultimate demise came about at least in part because it became increasingly expensive to maintain. It went from profit generator to a significant burden on the imperial purse.

More amazing still is the jaw-dropping irony of people who live in homes built on greenfield land campaigning against any more houses being built

The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, but it has been the most inventive in acquiring more land: it has reclaimed it from the sea. Much of its landmass is below sea level and protected by dikes. The value of land, which must be high for it to be economically viable to manufacture in this way, requires people to live and work in close proximity because of the cost of both buying and renting. 

We know that living in dense metropolises will support agglomerations of activity and boost productivity, something Transport for the North and the Northern Powerhouse are trying to replicate by bringing northern cities closer together.  

The boom our city is experiencing has led to unprecedented pressure on our housing and infrastructure, and this has caused our district leaders to take a second look at the greenbelt and its long-term value and viability. 

The consultation on the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework recently went live but the results have been delayed due to the election of Andy Burnham as Greater Manchester's Metro Mayor. Burnham has promised to rewrite the controversial plan. 

I belong to the GM Housing and Planning Commission, which acts as a forum between the lead member (Paul Dennett) and the districts, so I do not want in any way to pre-empt the findings of the consultation, but I do hope that others will listen to all sides of the debate, not just those who shout the loudest.

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Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has promised to rewrite the controversial Spatial Framework

Some of the campaigns against the plans have been quite intense. It is amazing the lengths to which some people will go to impede development. More amazing still is the jaw-dropping irony of people who live in homes built on greenfield land campaigning against any more houses (just like the ones in which they live) being built in their vicinity. 

I was told that in the letters pages of the Rochdale Observer one resident witnessed a campaigner walking a dog with a coat that read ‘Save my Walkies’. Like me, I think the letter writer was astonished to learn that we had somehow reached a point in our civilisation’s development where we deem space for our dogs to crap is more important than homes for people.

To put it bluntly, we must do something to find more space in which to build and, no, brownfield sites alone simply will not cut the mustard. Foreign policy and defence have yet to be devolved to the Combined Authority, meaning a Mancunian Empire is off the cards for now, and I cannot imagine reclaiming land from the Roach or the Irwell would satisfy the demand for land. 

There is only one place left to look to in order to ensure we can house everybody and support the economy of our City Region, and that is the greenbelt. I admit that this is a sensitive issue and one which will always be meet with vehement resistance from certain sections of society. To them, I say: nobody wants to build on the greenbelt, but I am afraid that we are now left with little other option.