Critical Analysis Project

Britain’s delusions about the green belt cause untold misery

In a column published in the Economist on Feb 11, 2017, Bagehot argues that Britain’s “delusions” about the green belt are central to its housing crisis. Here we analyse the key arguments.


The key claim of the article is contained in the title: Britain has delusions about the green belt and those delusions cause untold misery. The main focus of our analysis is the way the case for “delusion” is established.

First, lack of suitable housing in Britain has a hugely negative effect on many Britons, as described in the article (homelessness, people strapped for cash beyond basics, young people unable to move to where jobs are etc.). This is the “misery” potentially “caused” by collective delusions about the green belt.

The argument for the claim that it is the delusions about the green belt which cause this misery consists of two premises. The first is that opening up the green belt would be an effective remedy for the housing crisis. To this end, the author cites expert opinion that “liberalising 60% of the green belt within 2 km of a railway station would create room for 2m homes.” While this might still not be enough, in the author’s view, it would be a contribution in the order of magnitude required.

The second, key, premise is that this liberalisation is being blocked by “delusion about the green belt”. The support for this premise assembled in several steps. First is an illustrative example, that of Harlow, Essex: it is both unlovely (and could readily be used for housing), yet it is protected as part of the Green Belt. Bagehot then notes that a 2015 study found that 62% of urban dwellers want to protect the green belt, but crucially, says Bagehot, “reason barely comes into it” as “Britain’s relationship with the countryside is emotional.” He writes:

“Blame the Victorian bourgeoisie, who built vast, hellish metropolises… wistfully recalling rural life…They built railway lines that took them just far enough out of the cities to feel they were experiencing rustic life. In this spirit their children and grandchildren would create the green belt. “
“their instincts live on:… “Much of the country’s aesthetic and entertainment culture offers them seductive morsels of rural life. Hit television programmes like “The Great British Bake Off” and “Springwatch” constitute one example. New housing estates are pastiches of village architecture, all small windows, frilly gables and pitched roofs. The National Trust, a charity dedicated to preserving old houses and attractive landscapes, has more members than all the political parties put together. “

Illustrative examples are prominent in Bagehot’s piece: Harlow as an example of the green belt, “the Great British Bake off” and “Springwatch” as part of entertainment culture’s emphasis on rural life. Reasoning (and argument) by example is something we all engage in day to day, and reasoning by example has been identified as a part of rhetoric since at least Aristotle. Key to the quality of arguments involving illustrative examples is that the examples are representative: do they really support the generalisation that is intended? Are the “Great British Bake Off” (a competitive baking competition loosely modelled on an English village fete) and “Springwatch” genuinely good examples of Britain’s love for “rural” life? Or are they better described as instances of the genres ‘reality tv competition’ and ‘nature programme’ –given that the most watched UK TV programmes in 2017 were “Strictly come dancing” and “Blue Planet II”, a ballroom dancing competition and a programme about the world’s oceans? And with respect to the central example of Harlow, how typical is “wasteland” like Harlow? Bagehot himself describes green belts as containing ‘intensively agricultural land’, ‘golf courses’, ‘some of the land… is beautiful’, and as ‘Disused land’. From the description, it is clear that ‘wasteland’ constitutes only a subset of the total amount of Green Belts. Yet that proportion seems key if the argument is to go through, because it is presumably this type of land that Britain harbours ‘delusions’ about.

The Oxford English dictionary defines “delusion” as an idiosyncratic belief or an impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument (typically as a symptom of mental disorder).
Bagehot’s piece seems to be tapping both interpretations: an idiosyncratic belief in the worthiness of protecting the green belt is contradicted by the reality of places such as Harlow, and contradicted by rational argument for building. However, both strands of delusion are established only rather loosely. The reader cannot gauge how many Harlows there are, and whether they suffice to build the millions of houses required (what proportion of green belt within 60% of a railway station is like Harlow?). But the resistance to rational argument is established even less clearly: even if one takes Bagehot’s evidence of a strong emotional attachment of Britain to the countryside to be sufficient, such emotional attachment does not establish that “reason hardly comes into” that relationship. A strong emotional connection to something does not mean one’s response to it must be irrational: one may love one’s child or spouse without making irrational decisions about them.

It is important in this context to distinguish between appeals to emotion as ‘arguments’ or ‘evidence’, on the one hand, and the fact that emotion can indicate what we value. Appeals to emotion are frequently contrasted with rational, fact-based arguments (an issue we hope to return to in future). This is distinct from the fact that rational decision-makers (as defined in theories of economic rationality) are assumed to take actions that maximise their preferences: in effect, maximise ‘pleasure’ and minimise ‘pain’. What counts as pleasure and what as pain to an individual, however, is for them to decide; preferences become “irrational” only when certain relationships among preferences hold (for example, we simultaneously prefer A to B and B to A). Valuing the countryside is not irrational, nor is preferring green belts over building on them irrational as such. In particular, they do not imply inconsistent preferences because people may prefer entirely different options for solving housing shortages in their area, such as reducing the pressure on local population growth by creating better economic opportunities elsewhere.

In short, the case for “delusion” concerning the green belt does not seem well-made. Both with respect to mistaken beliefs and reason-resisting emotional attachments, more evidence would be required to determine whether such delusion really exists. This leaves hanging the extent to which it specifically is responsible for the continued housing crisis.

Bagehot’s piece seems more an outline of a possible explanation, than a compelling argument that his causal explanation is actually true. For an opinion piece that might be enough, but a hedge in the title (“might cause” or “might contribute to”) might have been more apt.

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