Generational theft is a term which has been thrown around by right of centre politicians since 2009. Coined by John McCain as a rallying cry against President Obama’s economic stimulus proposals it has since been picked up by journalists and academics.
The thesis is that if the state borrows money now, which it can’t afford to pay back, it is simply landing the next generation with an unsustainable debt and potentially a worse quality of life. This theft of ‘their” money to sustain or improve “our” lifestyle was the start of the debate.
Unsurprisingly others then latched onto the idea. It is not uncommon to hear generational theft accusations levelled by millennials (aged 20 – 35) at the baby boomers now aged 40/50/60 plus. Indeed some right leaning boomers have openly admitted the charge in order to justify arguments for fiscal austerity. The basis of such accusations is that throughout the 80’s and 90’s the boomers were able to secure cheap credit to buy cheap homes often now nicely paid off at a handsome profit. Everyone got in on the home buying spree. The banks over-reached, a credit and price bubble was created and then, since 2008, the rest is history. It seems clear that the actions of the boomers contributed to the millennials now facing unaffordable house prices let alone limited access to credit.
So where do planning and Green Belts fit in? Well it was also on the boomers watch when Green Belts were over rolled out across the UK. Whilst the phenomenally successful London Green Belt was introduced in the50s, the big wave of these city planning straitjackets across Northern and Midland cities occurred during the 70s and 80s. The Green Belts cut down the potential for new public and private sector housing development on the urban edge – a key feature of city growth in the UK during the 30s, 50s, 60s and 70s.
No one can doubt the success of the Green Belts in achieving the aim of preventing urban sprawl and encouraging urban regeneration. But have there been some negative economic externalities? Housing supply has shrivelled since the 80s – in part (but by no means all) due to Green Belt policy and other planning restraints. Newcastle for example now has entrenched undersupply of housing going back 25 years. 13 families now leave the City each week in search of cheaper housing and the situation is not unique to Newcastle.
So, back to the original question, are Green Belts a generational theft or a generational gift from the boomers to the millennials. Certainly a gift in ensuring that, for example, Manchester hasn’t merged into Liverpool or Sunderland into Newcastle. And also would we have seen such fantastic inner city regeneration over the last 30 years without Green Belt protection?
But as a boomer myself I can’t help feeling uneasy that my smooth path onto and up my housing ladder of choice is now unavailable to my children. I feel I played a part in that, particularly as a planner with a professional duty to provide houses of the right type for those who need them. I used to laugh at Ronnie Corbett in “Sorry”. Aged 41 and living at home. I suspect it’s now becoming the new norm.
As always in planning, the last line is the need for a balanced approach. Perhaps that balance should now shift towards a bigger focus on addressing the nations housing crisis than simply protecting all Green Belts at all costs.