Loosening the Green Belt

Tuesday 17 March 2015

London should conduct a review of its Green Belt land to see if it can help to address the city’s housing need, perhaps within a wider regional plan. But it must be careful to avoid being railroaded into simply enriching landowners and should conduct an intelligent appraisal of its brownfield capacity first.

Those were some of the headline findings at this morning’s breakfast talk at NLA, ‘Can London Afford the Green Belt?’

Centre for Cities acting chief executive Andrew carter kicked off by saying that there was a ‘strange and interesting political consensus’ which agreed that there was a housing crisis and a need to build more homes but that that will not be on the Green Belt, according to Prime Minister David Cameron. London’s deputy mayor Eddie Lister, furthermore, believes that the capital can deal with the crisis itself, using land within its own boundary. ‘I think both ideas are wrong’, said Carter. ‘The only way we will deal with London’s housing crisis is by taking up land wherever it may be, based on its merits.’ This is not just a crisis in London, he said, but across the south where economies are strongest and house prices at their highest, but even if we build on brownfield there is limited supply, said Carter. If we extend to beyond London’s boundaries there is scope to build some 3 million homes at suburban densities, using only 15% of the Green Belt area.

LSE professor emeritus of economic geography Paul Cheshire said the Green Belt arose partly as a result of the importation of an idea from the City of Vienna after it demolished its walls. But it was nothing to do with recreation, said Cheshire, and ‘we really should rethink what the purpose is’ given we live in a completely different world to when the Green Belt was first formed. The creation of green ‘fingers’ into the city could release more land than we need to solve our housing problems for two generations or more, he added.

But GLA strategic planning manager Colin Wilson said the 400,000 homes it said could be fitted onto brownfield land in London was an ‘elastic’ figure and more land could be brought forward. ‘We are constantly finding new land on which to build housing’, he said. The Green Belt could be altered, with boroughs ‘tweaking their allocations’, although, as Eric Pickles has noted, exceptional circumstances do not include lack of housing supply.

Hounslow’s assistant director, strategic planning, regeneration and economic development Heather Cheesbrough said Hounslow is reviewing its Green Belt, partially to help aid the deprived west of the region. And Jonathan Seager, programme director, policy at London First said it was crucial if London wanted to remain a world city to build more homes, and that could be helped by relooking at the Green Belt, which covers 22% of London’s land use. ‘It’s unrealistic to assume that we can accommodate all the growth we know is coming to London on brownfield land’, he said.

Finally, Bartlett professor of Urban Design Peter Bishop suggested that it was about politics more than it was about economics, and concerned more fundamental problems that London is facing and how we deliver that in an ‘inefficient at best’ development model. A real issue is affordability, he said, and we risk ‘nibbling away’ at the Green Belt only for the enrichment of individuals unless we can capture development uplift, which could be put back into affordable housing or land remediation.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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Can London afford the Green Belt?

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A recent report by Centre for Cities indicates that over the long-term London will need to extend its boundaries into the Green Belt if it is to meet the economic needs of the city’s growing population.

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