London could contribute a million more homes to the goal of easing its ongoing housing crisis if it de-designated and used some of the scrappier, less ‘green and pleasant’ parts of its considerable Green Belt land.
That was one of the key views to emerge from an APPG meeting on whether it was time to re-think the Green Belt, held in Westminster on Monday this week.
The session was introduced by APPG chair Rupa Huq and NLA chairman Peter Murray, the latter also the chair of the London Society which was responsible for originally introducing ideas around the Green Belt to prevent sprawl and provide a green lung for the city, but who called it a ‘toxic’ issue which politicians nowadays ordinarily shy away from.
Siobhain McDonagh MP for Mitcham and Morden has been fired up to investigate the issue, not least from witnessing the distress of ‘imminent homelessness’ displayed by over half the people at her weekly advice surgery. Housing has become an investment rather than primarily a home, she said, but the public were ahead of politicians on housing and the pressing need to make sites available for development.
McDonagh joined up with academics, economics and experts to report first-hand what some of London’s Green Belt was like, especially since 22% of land inside London’s boundary is so designated and 14 London boroughs have more land designated as Green Belt than is designated for housing. McDonagh found that, not only is only around 20% of the Green Belt accessible to the public as green spaces or has an environmental status, despite Green Belt’s strong brand, many sites were far from the popular conception. She visited illegal waste tips, scrub land, tyre centres and car washes just minutes from train stations and there were in her opinion ‘countless’ more such sites. These ‘scrappy plots of ungreen land’ have led the MP call to dedesignate Green Belt land within 45 minutes’ travel time of London’s Zone 1 and within a 10 minute walk of a train station, except for SSSIs or areas of outstanding natural beauty. Here there is space for a million homes, said McDonagh, whose campaign is backed by a wide range of groups including the Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Cities, the London Chamber of Commerce and the Taxpayers’ Alliance. As a nation we sing ‘Jerusalem’ and get emotional about England’s green and pleasant land, added McDonagh, but it was time to stop the music and ‘bust the myth’ that all Green Belt is actually green, because much of it is nothing to sing about at all. ‘The point is there is a widespread agreement that we must grasp the nettle and stop promising new homes without the means to do so’, said McDonagh. ‘The time for words is over, the time for action is now, and if we all make this change we can all be able to cry ‘Jerusalem’.
LSE emeritus professor of economic geography Paul Cheshire agreed, saying that the data bears much of this out, with the real price of housing in London having increased in real terms by five times but the price of land having risen by 17 times. It was worth remembering that the Metropolitan Green Belt was introduced in 1955 to stop urban development, not for access but ‘to stop building houses and nothing else’.
LCCI director of policy Sean McKee said that the mayor should designate parts of the Green Belt to build homes to rent, not buy, and provide homes for key workers. But the whole area needs a sensible discussion, since Green Belt is a bit like Brexit in that people mention the word and then get behind ‘battle lines’. And Lord Taylor of Gossmoor said that the Green Belt has become ‘massively distorted in people’s minds’, with a need to get back to its original purpose, to protect the places we most value but without a general designation, even introducing a concept of different kinds of Green Belt – a Gold Belt, Red Belt or Yellow, for example. There should also be a return to thinking of creating new places with pubs and social facilities. ‘Why have we given up the idea that we can create fantastic places?’, he asked.
Other speakers included Levitt Bernstein senior associate Vinita Dhume, who stressed that London should not be looked upon as an ‘island’ but must embrace a more regional approach as the ‘biggest missing part of the puzzle’, and Rockwell head of planning Jonathan Manns, who said our views on the wider countryside had changed over the decade, while that of the city had remained largely the same. ‘I’d like to suggest that there has been a disconnect between the often irrational shared cultural imagination and the rational evidence-based attempts of planners to consider the built environment as a whole’, he said. ‘If we’re going to rethink the Green Belt we need to do it not in the context of purely the Green Belt or in isolation but in the contexts of built and natural environments that we want to create’.
By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly