Dave Hill: Movement on the London Green Belt

Dave Hill: Movement on the London Green Belt

Think tank Centre for London spotted it and so did the Telegraph, house journal of the culture war Home Guard. For once where Sadiq Khan is concerned Colonel Blimp’s carrier pigeon wasn’t making stuff up. In his 2021 mayoral election manifesto the Mayor explicitly opposed building on Green Belt land and supported instead “rewilding, planting orchards and forests” on the scruffier bits to strengthen their defences. But in his 2024 equivalent the Green Belt wasn’t mentioned at all.

What’s the story? Appearing on Politics London Centre for London’s senior researcher Jon Tabbush said the omission was to Khan’s credit and clear evidence of “a collaboration planned with the national Labour party on this”. Keir Starmer, of course, has spoken of loosening national planning rules to allow building on what he has dubbed the “grey belt”, meaning Green Belt land across the country that isn’t very green. The capital is not excluded. Calls to liberate scrappy protected space near London stations have long been made, notably by London Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh and colleagues. The stage now looks set for those calls to be answered. Next question: how much difference would that make?

A Centre for London report on solving London’s housing problems, co-authored by Tabbush and published in December, said “unlocking a small fraction of poor-quality land in the Green Belt surrounding public transport stations could allow for hundreds of thousands of high-quality homes to be built”. Another think tank, Centre for Cities, had already come up with the figure of nearly 900,000 that could potentially be accommodated on land within walking distance of stations less than 45 minutes away from central London, earmarking ten per cent of it for new green space, and all without intruding on territory categorised as being of public benefit. It still isn’t widely recognised that lots of Green Belt within London is used for farming and golf.

Centre for London recommended the forming of a mayoral commission to choose ten suitable “grey belt” sites. Khan and national affordable housing body Homes England would together set up development corporations to plan the areas chosen and get them built out, backed by ten-year funding settlements from the Treasury. Such a body, created by national government, guided the creation of Canary Wharf. Today, there are two mayoral development corporations, responsible for Old Oak and Park Royal and the Olympic Park. The resistance of boroughs reluctant to build would be by-passed.

Imagine hundreds of thousands of new homes, plenty of them for social rent or otherwise plausibly “affordable”, appearing across Greater London over the coming years. Imagine the beneficial impact this could have on a crisis London Councils has taken to calling an emergency.

The prospect makes Khan’s election campaign pledge to get 40,000 council homes built by 2030 look rather modest. On Politics London, Tabbush repeated the Centre for London report’s advice that London needs to build 30,000 social rent homes altogether, council or otherwise, every year to deal with the backlog of need. Dare we dream of this occurring? Where might the “grey belt” transformations take place? Enfield Council has an answer already.

Working with a Labour government on such a programme would mark a change in a long-held Khan position. In early 2016, running for Mayor for the first time, he told the Economist he was “committed to protecting the Green Belt”, saying London was “nowhere, nowhere, nowhere near” having to sacrifice what he called crucial lungs of the city. The problem was that even back then serious analysts were saying that releasing at least some Green Belt land would be essential if London’s need of that time to build at least 50,000 new homes year was to be met. That number has since increased.

In fairness to Khan, who last week demonstrated once again his talent for winning elections, any politician suggesting even the tiniest erosion of Green Belt designations triggers frenzied, flag-waving accusations of plotting to “concrete over the countryside” of the green and pleasant land, such as those Zac Goldsmith dog-whistled eight years ago. But by this time next year the political landscape might look very different.

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