Is a Greenbelt review the solution to London's housing crisis?

In February 2018 we published an article focusing on regeneration,  looking at how the investment in such development should be managed for the betterment of the existing community 1.

The risk back then was that rising housing costs could price existing residents out of their communities, causing accusations of gentrification, losing sight of the aspects of that neighbourhood which were so attractive in the first place. Two years on the debate has honed in on the more fundamental and unavoidable issue that we have a housing crisis. No one can dispute the housing crisis, but what is in dispute is how we deliver more housing and where that housing can be located.

There is a straightforward lack of affordable places to buy or rent in London. This has a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of Londoners with people living in inadequate housing, in places they would not necessarily choose to live and with a lack of access to green space. High rents are also leading to an increase in evictions which is one of  the biggest causes of homelessness and personally speaking, walking past tents on the street on my commute into work is a daily reminder of this harsh reality.  There are statistics which show a worrying trend that the continuing increase in rental costs and house prices driven by the lack of housing supply is and will continue to trigger a “talent drain” as employees either do not come to London or consider leaving.  This all risks the competitiveness of London as a dynamic global City and stifles the capital’s economic growth.

Various figures are stated regarding the level of new housing required.  The Mayor has identified a need for 66,000 new homes per year.  So what is standing in the way?  We are told that across Greater London there are current planning permissions in place for 300,000 homes. TfL has promised 10,000 homes on its supply of brownfield land, but clearly this has been difficult to deliver.  It either has to be viability issues or the lack of connectivity of the land in question that is preventing homes being delivered.  It appears that it is not a lack of land, but a lack of serviceable land with appropriate transport links and supporting social infrastructure that is stopping development being brought forward.

The status quo is not working. Something needs to change.

For London, one topic being hotly debated alongside the draft London Plan and the upcoming Mayoral elections is a review of the Green Belt for Greater London.  This is perceived by many to be unpopular politically, but is the Green Belt fully understood?

The vision for the Green Belt in the 1930s started as a way “to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas” and when finally implemented in 1955 it was seen as a way to “stop further urban development”.  London is a very different place 65 years on!

The expression “Green Belt” triggers thoughts of areas of open countryside, rolling hills, grasslands and parks enjoyed by the public.  Over 20% of Greater London is designated Green Belt which is certainly a huge area (14 Boroughs have plenty of Green Belt).  However, only 22% of that Green Belt is publicly accessible (for example 59% is farmland and 7.1% is golf courses) 2.

It is a misnomer that all our Green Belt is “green”.  There is a substantial amount of land within the Green Belt that for the man on the street is brownfield – illegal waste dumps, derelict or disused buildings and airfields, and scrub land – areas of poor environmental quality and of little or no public benefit.  These areas are never realistically going to be “green” again, but this is not just about releasing more brownfield sites.  Crucially new housing needs connectivity.  It is estimated that 1.4m new homes could be delivered on this brownfield Green Belt around stations within Greater London 3.

Around 60% of London’s Green Belt is within 2 kilometres of an existing rail or tube line.  Building homes on this land could both deliver desperately needed environmentally friendly housing and, with appropriate mechanisms within the planning regime, this housing could equally provide funding for improved transport and social infrastructure, improved public access to existing improved Green Belt and the delivery of more open green space. Tackling air pollution and the increasing importance of cycling and walking and reduced car dependency is vital for wellbeing and mental health with ill health being another chronic pressure on social services.

Yes, a Green Belt review is a hugely sensitive and complex matter.  However, the inspectors who have reviewed the draft London Plan have reached the inescapable conclusion that a review is needed to deliver the sustainable development required.  This is also supported by the NPPF under which a review could be possible as we are faced with exceptional circumstances.  Being faced by a climate change emergency, with the Government under increasing pressure to deliver net zero emissions by 2050, it is likely the Green Belt will have to be looked at in any event as no doubt achieving that target will involve significant land use change.  A review would need to be done in a structured way, providing good growth which delivers the housing desperately needed for London and at the same time protects and enhances the truly “green” parts of the Green Belt .  Such a review does seem on balance a real solution to the current housing crises.