Time to take the housing crisis seriously

Green Belt report

This opinion piece was first published in Estates Gazette on 28.02.15.

Britain is experiencing the greatest population growth in its entire history, and much of that is concentrated in London. Never before has a British city gained more than a million people in just a decade. Extraordinary times call for a more serious response.

We can’t maintain quality of life, and quality of place, unless we have enough homes to live in. The housing crisis is not an abstract future threat, it is here now and it has a daily human cost.

London needs to use its brownfield land; it needs to build higher, to intensify, and to release underused industrial land and commercial buildings. All of that is a given. But it will not be enough. To understand the scale of the problem, consider that the GLA’s recently announced housing zones will each give us only four weeks’ housing supply. Such initiatives are welcome – essential in fact – but they are only just the start.

What else can be done? Is London simply full, with no space left? Must we resign ourselves to even worse overcrowding and unaffordability? The London First, Quod and SERC report published this week looks at one of London’s largest land uses, the 22% of the capital reserved as Green Belt, and asks whether we can really still justify keeping every inch sacrosanct.

This analysis shows that the Green Belt in London is a real mixture – from the beautiful and precious, to the frankly underused and inaccessible. You might be surprised to hear only a quarter of the land inside London’s Green Belt (that is, within the area of the Greater London Authority) is environmentally designated land, parks, or land with real public access.

There’s no question that cities need open spaces, and lots of the Green Belt has real intrinsic value – either rich in wildlife, or providing the public with essential amenity and recreation. But what of the rest? What about the fenced-off fields used for intensive agriculture, the paddocks, or the two and a half thousand hectares set aside for golf – more than twice the size of Kensington and Chelsea?

If we want to protect the quality of London for the growing number of people who live in London, then we can’t continue to rule out sensible reviews of the Green Belt boundaries.

Planning policy says Green Belts should “check the unrestricted sprawl” of cities, and “safeguard the countryside from encroachment”. These are important and worthwhile aims but we need to ask about application of that policy within London itself.

The alternative to rigid Green Belt protection is not a free-for-all, it is a considered review of the boundaries. The NPPF already says this should be done in exceptional circumstances – and a city growing by a million people every ten years is truly exceptional.

Green Belt boundary reviews are urgently needed, and must not just reconfirm the status quo. We have to continue to protect what is worth protecting, but also be realistic about what could be better used. Around 60% of London’s Green Belt is within two kilometres of an existing Tube or rail station – if even quite a small fraction of this was suitable for housing (or for employment uses displaced by housing), then it could transform our ability to meet the need for homes.

Those who defend the Green Belts’ historic boundaries as inalienable may fear that any change could be a slippery slope. But in reality, a sensible review and adjustment of boundaries is a measured and essential response to what is a quite extraordinary unfolding crisis.

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