Charles Wright: Enfield Council dares to propose building on Green Belt as housing shortages grow

Charles Wright: Enfield Council dares to propose building on Green Belt as housing shortages grow

With Labour leader Keir Starmer and Prime Pinister Rishi Sunak already clashing over house-building, the future of the Green Belt will be firmly on the agenda at the coming general election – meaning that Enfield, where the metropolis abuts the remaining open spaces of the Enfield Chase hunting ground, could be a key battleground.

Like the city as a whole, Enfield is seeing its population growing – it is estimated to reach 390,000 by 2036 – and homelessness soaring, costing the council a reported £500,000 a month in hotel bills, while it continues to fall behind on its house-building targets.

That’s the context in which the Labour-controlled council set out draft Local Plan proposals to redesignate part of its Green Belt, which covers 37 per cent of the borough. Two neighbourhoods, the Crews Hill garden centres cluster and Chase Park farmland, were identified as “rural placemaking areas” capable of accommodating some 8,000 new homes by 2039.

Predictably, it is not a popular move with either local Labour MPs and Sadiq Khan or as opposition councillors and community organisations. It would “significantly erode the character of the borough” and bring about the “destruction” of some of its “most precious countryside,” said the Enfield Society.

The plan’s opponents aren’t alone. The Green Belt, which, around London, is actually three times the size of the city itself, has a particular place in the public imagination, as recent polling for the Economist magazine confirms. Six out of ten respondents would keep current Green Belt restrictions, even if that hampered efforts to ease housing shortages. And just one-fifth supported sacrificing at least some Green Belt land. Respondents were also dramatically wide of the mark when asked how much of England’s land was already developed, on average estimating 47 per cent. The actual figure is nine per cent.

The popular cry is to focus on “brownfield” not greenfield sites for new development, but the council argues that, even with plans such as its flagship 10,000-home Meridian Water regeneration scheme in Edmonton, that cannot be the whole answer.

Pressure on land is a London-wide issue. The inspectors scrutinising Mayor Khan’s 2019 London Plan target of 65,000 new homes a year set out the dilemma: “Supply is based on capacity…it is difficult to see how the number of deliverable housing units could be increased [above 52,000 a year] without consideration being given to a review of the Green Belt or further exploration of potential with local authorities within the wider South East.” Put simply, there isn’t enough “brownfield” to go round (and not just in London either).

Nor is getting brownfield development underway an easy task in the suburbs, as Enfield has already found. Recent schemes for 162 rental homes at Arnos Grove station and 216 homes in Southgate both went to appeal before winning approval after councillors acceded to protesters bemoaning the loss of car parking spaces and the Southgate scheme’s impact on local character. The government itself is still blocking 351 homes in Cockfosters because the scheme would encroach on the station car park. And complex schemes such as Meridian Water can take decades to complete.

Hence Enfield’s turn towards the potential of at least part of its Green Belt, which has been welcomed by at least one group – the housebuilders who have been eyeing up Crews Hill in particular, according to responses to the council’s consultation, recently helpfully indexed by the Enfield Society.

Just below the M25, Crews Hill was a noted centre of glasshouse horticulture until cheaper imports took their toll. Then it was garden centres, themselves now feeling the squeeze from online shopping. More disparate recent uses have given it an “urbanised character” according to Berkeley Homes – Green Belt yet brownfield.

Landowners such as the Wolden garden centre make a similar point: the area has “undergone an economic transition in recent years” and is no longer “representative of typical ‘green belt’ land”. More an “exciting opportunity”, a “sustainable location” for much-needed housing and associated infrastructure, all handily situated around Crews Hill Station, some 40 minutes from Moorgate. What’s more, they argue, Crews Hill could see much-needed new homes in six to 10 years.

The undeveloped fields at Chase Farm, further south, offer similar potential, according to developers Comer Homes. The site, already surrounded on three sides by development and within walking distance of three stations, could support a “sensitively designed, landscape-led development promoting sustainable living in a green setting”, with between 3,000 and 5,000 new homes.

The council is now preparing the next version of its Local Plan, currently scheduled for further consultation in the winter, a public examination before a planning inspector at some point in 2024, and adoption in 2025.

Faced with an immediate need for new housing in the borough, councillors have to date been prepared to contemplate what many experts now agree is a necessary measure, seeking a small green belt contribution towards meeting that need. Will they be buoyed by Starmer’s pledges, or more mindful of a potential electoral backlash?

X/Twitter: Charles Wright and On London. Image: John Norden’s 1593 map of Enfield Chase, as reproduced by the Enfield Society. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to publisher and editor Dave Hill’s Substack. Thanks.

Categories: Analysis

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