High property prices and rents have made housing unaffordable for many. The UK’s housing crisis has wide-ranging effects, particularly for first-time buyers and low-income individuals or families. Some areas are overcrowded and homelessness is rising, with many people living on the streets or in inadequate temporary accommodations. A Parliamentary report estimated that 340.000 new homes need to be supplied in England each year.
Almost every attempt at meaningful housing reform in the UK faces seemingly insurmountable political headwinds. But that does force us to consider alternative approaches. Could building houses on water be the solution? Can the Dutch pioneering concept of land reclamation (“droogleggen”) help solve the UK housing shortage?
The Netherlands is famous for creating (or reclaiming) land, essential in a country the size of 41.850 km² and with a population density of 416 citizens/km². Land reclamation is the process of creating new land by draining water from an area, typically from the sea or a body of water. The area is first sealed off by surrounding it with dikes, to then be drained with pumps. In the Netherlands, this method has led to the construction of entire communities, cities, and industries, on land which used to be just water.
The most vivid example would be the province of Flevoland, which consists in its entirety of ‘polder’ (man-made land constructed on what used to be water) and did not exist before 1986. The 2.412 km2 of stretched out land used to be the Zuiderzee, a sea neighbouring the North Sea. Currently, Flevoland has more than 400.000 inhabitants, collectively living in approximately 181.165 houses. With the Netherlands being a densely populated country, creating more living space was highly beneficial, and the additional land is now used for agriculture, housing, and infrastructure development.
The UK could use similar methods to expand its supply of land, by reclaiming land near different coasts or certain lakes. For instance claiming additional land at the coasts of Cardiff and Bristol, a suitable area given the channel of Bristol ends enclosed by land, meaning dikes would only be needed on one side. Low-depth lakes or basins such as Medway waters near London, are more cost-efficient to pump, compared to the deeper levels of the sea. Within cities, reservoirs can be a quick solution, since they are easy to drain and often already surrounded by appropriate infrastructure. The newly created land can be used for housing development, helping to address housing shortages in densely populated areas. This expansion of available land can provide more choices for potential homeowners and renters. Reclamation would stimulate economic activity by creating jobs in construction, engineering, and related industries, also attracting private investment and fostering a market-driven approach to housing expansion; therefore leading to increased employment opportunities and economic growth.
Land reclamation is also fundamentally rooted in the expansion of property rights. By reclaiming land from the sea or other bodies of water, new parcels of property are created. These parcels provide individuals with the opportunity to own, develop, and utilise land that was previously unavailable. An additional benefit for seaside areas is the resulting coastal protection and flood control. Land reclamation projects can serve as natural barriers against rising sea levels and flooding, something especially relevant given the challenges posed by climate change.
It is important to note that modern land reclamation projects are conducted with a strong focus on environmental responsibility. Densely built urban areas, like those achievable through land reclamation, have a significantly lower CO2 footprint compared to sprawling suburbs. By creating land in urban areas, the need for expansion into nature regions is reduced, meaning we can preserve current green spaces. Additionally, given nobody lives on the potential land since it is currently still under water, local communities will not lose any of their ground.
The housing shortage in the UK demands innovative solutions that balance individual choice, economic growth, and environmental responsibility. Land reclamation, with its proven success in countries like the Netherlands, offers a path forward in addressing land scarcity and housing challenges.