You can stop building

A headline in the paper last week made me stop and think about different uses of the verb stop. The headline said ‘You can stop building on green sites, councils told’.

There are at least 2 ways to read that sentence:

  1. Councils can prevent other people from building on green sites.
  2. Councils themselves will no longer need to build on green sites.

These 2 readings differ along 2 dimensions:

  • whether 2 groups of parties are involved (the councils and other people), or only one group (councils).
  • whether ‘stop’ refers to preventing a future action (future building by other people), or to permitting councils to cease an activity that has already been occurring in the past (building by the council).

In fact, the intended reading was the 2nd reading. The UK government had previously told local councils they must start to allow more housing to be built on land that was designated as not available for housing (for example, because it was in a ‘green belt’). But the government has now said it will reverse that instruction.

There is, though, a twist. If I understand correctly, the instruction had not been in place long enough for new houses to be built yet. So, it seems the verb stop is not really correct to convey what is going on. (The wording is concise, though, which probably explains why the headline writer picked it).

The government is not telling councils that they can stop housebuilding that was already occurring. It is instead freeing councils from a not-yet-implemented requirement to allow enough housebuilding on ‘green land’ if that is needed to meet government targets.  

Perhaps a clearer headline would be: ‘You won’t have to build on green land after all, councils told’.

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