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Is it time to review London’s green belt?

Nothing ignites a policy debate like the subject of London’s green belt. You might think Brexit had eclipsed it, but the discussion at a recent roundtable on the issue showed that the flame still burns bright.

On one side, the green belt was held up as an anachronism, restricting land supply, thereby pushing up house prices in the capital, pulling the lower rungs of the property ladder further and further out of reach and deepening London’s affordability crisis. The green belt isn’t even that green, the argument went, accommodating as it does golf courses, haulage yards, and other economically or aesthetically dubious uses.

Read this paper on land and planning

On the other side, the green belt’s defenders argue that all of this is premature, or even beside the point. London still has plentiful and oft-replenished stocks of “brownfield’’ (previously developed) land. Allowing London to spread into the green belt rather than making the most of these inner city sites would be socially and environmentally disastrous; it would hollow out the capital and lead to the pattern of urban dereliction and car-dependent sprawl that has blighted many US cities. We should focus – first and last and always – on building out the brownfield sites within the M25.

These positions are entrenched and passionately defended, though it is worth noting that some of the arguments seem to be at cross-purposes. Defenders of the green belt do not actually hold it to be an arcadian idyll. For them, its primary purpose is containment, not beauty. Neither do (most) advocates for change argue for wholesale abandonment of any constraints on development, and for the frenzy of speculation and sprawl that would likely ensue.

But the real problem with both strongly-held positions is that they do not allow for nuance, or the complexity inherent in a system where planning, consumer choice, housing finance, urban design, international investment and local politics intertwine.

So here are six see-saw statements – each balanced on a “but” – exploring whether London really has a land shortage and whether the green belt might help address this.

The green belt is not all green, but that’s not really the point

When a “green belt” was first proposed by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee in 1935, it was described both as a recreational amenity and as a constraint on growth, and was envisaged as being a few miles wide. When the first green belts were introduced in the mid-1950s, the focus shifted to the latter function – to checking metropolitan growth, stopping towns merging with each other and preserving their character. Leisure and nature conservation were secondary. And as the population of South East England has grown, London’s green belt has been defensively extended in stages to cover more than 500,000 hectares, three times the area of Greater London. The “belt” is at least as important as the “green”.

London has accommodated huge population growth, but at a price

In the post-war period, as inner London lost population, the green belt prevented the city from sprawling out as many US cities did, although many Londoners settled – by choice or dispersal – in the new and old towns that surrounded the capital. Since the tide turned in the late 1980s, London has housed a population that has grown by a third, from 6.7 to 8.8 million, within its boundaries. And it has done this while persistently failing to build the number of new homes that planners say are needed.

How so? Overcrowding has increased and the number of vacant homes has fallen but, most dramatically, house prices have shot up – accelerated by speculative frenzy and in recent years cheap credit – both in London itself and in the surrounding towns and cities that have seen commuting increase. If London is to continue to grow, this approach is not sustainable: building more homes, and in particular more low-priced homes, has to be part of the solution to what is becoming a crisis for young Londoners and a threat to London’s economy.

There are ‘sites’ for London’s population growth, but their deliverability is debatable

The draft London Plan, published in late 2017, maintains that London can accommodate the vast majority of the 66,000 homes per year that it needs to built. The Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment that underpins the Plan estimates that sites for 65,000 of these can be found on a mixture of identified and “windfall” sites, many of them in Outer London.

The Plan has just completed its “examination in public” (a form of public enquiry) and the planning inspectors will report on their findings in September. It is fair to say that the examination saw debate about the realism of housing targets. How could London double the rate of building, given the current track record, the controversial nature of building more in outer London, and the Plan’s clampdown on release of industrial land (which has supplied 100 hectares a year for development in recent years, three times the level anticipated)?

Getting planning permission for small sites around outer London town centres is likely to be tough, but planning permission is only the start. London already has a backlog of permissions, with 300,000 homes – ten years’ supply at current build rates – in the pipeline. Some of these permissions may be scuppered by planning obligations, or by the need for investment in infrastructure or remediation. Others may be being held back by developers nervous about London’s shaky-looking market. And some may have been secured solely to establish value for a site, by landowners who have no intention of building.

Finally, high land prices mean that even when new housing is built, the viability of affordable housing becomes a matter for intense negotiation, often stalling schemes. Capital programmes for affordable housing have been cut to the bone, so without more funding in the system, it is hard for affordable housing to be built at scale without market housing to cross-subsidise it.

Density is good for cities, but maximising density isn’t always best

But if London’s remaining sites are scarce and/or difficult, the city can surely build at higher densities. Within its boundaries, London is much less densely built than New York, Paris or Barcelona, and the importance of urban density – to create vitality, make efficient use of land, and support public transport and other services – has come to the fore recently. Density is good for cities and citizens.

Yet density cannot be increased across the city simply by turning a dial. Barcelona has incredibly high density because of its characteristic block formation. Creating this type of density in London would require wholesale demolition and reconstruction of a city that remains dominated by two to three storey terraces and semi-detached houses. New developments are being built much more densely than in the past, surging past planning guidelines and taking advantage of lower levels of car ownership. But this uneven pattern of “lumpy” development is not only creating community controversy, it is not even making much difference to the speed of housebuilding. Developers are simply releasing land more slowly.

Unbuckling the green belt would likely be a disaster, but that’s not the only way

Watching the glacial pace of development within London, you can’t help but wonder whether to be radically disruptive. Ditching the green belt designation would likely lead to a frenzy of activity but maybe not to so much building.

Many local authorities would still seek to protect former green belt land from development, while the planning system would see a flurry of applications and appeals, agricultural land prices would spiral upwards and urban land prices would fall. Some landowners – maybe those with the deepest pockets and the sharpest lawyers – would secure planning permission for new development, and some of that development might even be built, pockmarking the hills and plains around the M25 with new settlements. So how many new houses would actually be built is pretty moot, and whether they would be decently designed or planned even more so.

But there are other ways to open up more housing land. One, which has been promoted by the Centre for Cities and Barney Stringer from planning consultancy Quod, looks to areas around railways stations to provide capacity. Taking a two kilometre catchment area around stations, they estimate that such sites could provide room for 1.4 million homes within Greater London’s boundary, or 3.4 million if the whole green belt was included. This would be a more rational form of development, with public transport access reducing car dependency and enabling “compact city” development. But there’s still no guarantee that any of these homes would be built, particularly around outer London centres where the green belt has been enthusiastically embraced as a brake on new build.

An alternative approach would be that advocated by David Rudlin, Nicholas Falk and colleagues from urban designers Urbed, in their winning submission to the 2014 Wolfson Prize. Looking at an imaginary city (loosely modelled on Oxford), they proposed that “rather than nibbling into the fields that surround the city and all its satellite villages, we should take a good confident bite out of the green belt to create sustainable urban extensions”. National government and the Mayor of London could agree to identify and designate a location for an urban extension, take control of the land, develop a master plan, and use value capture to invest in roads, rails and social infrastructure. They could also drive the pace of development, sharing risks and proceeds with developers willing to commit to the quality, mix and speed of development required.

Urban extensions might look like a soft option, but they could boost the inner city too

But would an urban extension also drive dereliction, diverting investment and resources from urban sites? This argument is powerful, uniting green belt defenders and urban renaissance advocates, but it is not the inevitable outcome. Firstly, construction and investment capacity is not fixed; London continues to be a favoured destination for investment, and workforce capacity can be addressed over time. Secondly, city centre and urban extension could be made to work together – some of the value generated within the extension could be earmarked for reinvestment in city centre sites where infrastructure needs and market conditions undermine viability. And while an urban extension was being planned, developers would have every incentive to complete their work within the city.

Timing is critical, given the years that debating, planning and building a new piece of city would require. Our first priority should still be delivering the major planning applications that are within London’s pipeline. Together with the new sites identified in the London Plan, these may meet London’s needs for ten years or more, depending on whether and when “windfall” sites, such as car parks, become available. But we should be starting work on a green belt review now if we are to have any chance of seeing new homes built by 2030.

This approach may look heavy-handed and statist – and it is – but the government has assumed powers to build new towns in the past when it has taken the need for new homes seriously. Legislation to set up new town development corporations and urban and mayoral development corporations remains in place. These public bodies can buy up land (including through compulsory purchase), grant planning permission, and build homes and infrastructure. Land would need to be bought at existing (mainly agricultural) prices – rather than “hope values” based on its end use – in order for value uplifts to fund infrastructure, but this is a policy change that is already being advocated by Civitas among others. The main losers would be players in the shadowy land options market, for whom few tears would be shed.

An abrupt switch in policy on the green belt would probably be as disastrous as it is unlikely, but that shouldn’t rule out a sensible, long-term review or at least a more nuanced debate. The housing crisis in London and the wider South East is too deeply entrenched and complex for a single magical solution. A green belt review, backed by a clear commitment to take powers over planning and land ownership, should form a part of the toolkit for building more homes for the next million Londoners.

FIND OUT MORE IN THIS PAPER ON LAND and PLANNING

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This blog was originally published by OnLondon.

Richard Brown is Research Director at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.