Colin Wiles: it really is time for a Green Belt rethink

By Colin Wiles

As this debut piece for On London shows, Colin Wiles has decades of experience in London housing, including with local authorities and housing associations. He is currently a fellow of both the Chartered Institute of Housing and the RSA and a member of the steering group of SHOUT. He knows a lot. Follow him on Twitter.

I moved to London in late 1978, just as the Winter of Discontent kicked off, to work as a housing trainee for the London Borough of Camden. Ken Livingstone was chairman of the housing committee and the legendary William Barnes was the borough’s director of housing. A Safari-suited Ken would drive around the borough with a sheaf of estate agent particulars, looking at street properties to buy.

Whole streets of Georgian and Victorian terraces were snapped up. Housing Action Areas and General Improvement Areas were set up to tackle slum landlords. Back then, Camden was building 3,000 council homes a year: high quality homes let at low rents, designed by in-house architects, much of it the most innovative social housing in the country. It was truly a golden age.

How times change. When Margaret Thatcher was elected in May 1979 the funding started to dry up. House building slowed dramatically and many of those street properties could not be improved. They became squatted or were let to short-life licensees. Thirty years later, some of them were still living in these properties.

Compare and contrast that flush of municipal activity to today. Last year only 1,840 council homes were built. Not in Camden, not in London, but in England as a whole. The scale of retreat has been staggering and, for many, is at the root of the housing crisis across the capital.

Of course, it is more complex than that. Whenever I read an article stating, “X could solve the housing crisis” I want to gag. The housing crisis is a complex beast that needs to be fought on many fronts, but the underlying problem in London is the failure to build enough affordable homes for at least the past three decades.

London’s population has grown by two million since 1978 yet house building rates have plummeted. Over the past decade about 20,000 new homes have been built each year, when the true need is for at least 50,000. Every political party says they want to do more, but where are the new homes to come from?

There are four clear options, none mutually exclusive: build upwards; demolish and rebuild low-density social housing estates; increase the density of the suburbs; and build on the Green Belt.

The government has already pledged to allow floors to be added to existing buildings, but it is not likely to make a significant difference. 

The regeneration of social housing estates is proving controversial and is perhaps the wrong answer to the wrong question. After all, inner London, where most such estates are located, has much higher densities than the suburbs – 15,670 people per square kilometre in Islington compared with only 2,177 in Bromley. It is government cuts in investment that have pushed social housing providers down this blind alley, forcing them to come up with unpopular demolition proposals that require social rented homes to make way for profitable ones for market sale or rent in the hope that the proceeds from these will provide subsidy for “affordable” replacements.   

Increasing the density of Outer London is the next option, but many of its leafy suburbs were laid out in the twenties, thirties and fifties. Assembling land on any serious scale would be extremely difficult and compulsory purchase would create a political backlash, although there is a clear case for infill and densification around transport hubs.

That leaves Green Belt land, the least bad choice in the eyes of many, including me. To begin with, London’s municipal footprint was set in stone in 1965 when London’s population was 7.5 million and falling, more than a million fewer people than now.

Is there a case for adding new boroughs or extending the existing ones to allow for better strategic planning? Greater London is surrounded by a Green Belt that is over three times larger than its own. Yet one fifth of Greater London’s area (35,000 hectares) is Green Belt and of that only one fifth has any public access or environmental designation. Most of it is closed off to Londoners. On top of this, there are a further 75,000 hectares within the M25, which many would see as London’s “natural” boundary. (Most towns and cities tend to grow outwards to their bypass).

Much of this land has little amenity or aesthetic value and includes scrap yards, pony paddocks and sterile fields. Yet 60% of the Green Belt in Greater London is within two kilometres (a short cycle ride) of a train station. If this land could be acquired at its existing use value, the uplift in prices as a result of development would allow more than a million affordable homes to be built. A new age of municipal house building could be set in motion.

Despite the overwhelming case for reviewing the extent of the Green Belt, both Boris Johnson, when Mayor of London, and Sadiq Khan have made explicit commitments to leave the Green Belt untouched. If London is to provide the homes it needs it really is time for a rethink.

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