Please remain calm. No issue gets blood boiling quite like the Metropolitan Green Belt, with the possible exception of road pricing (the two aren’t unrelated, as we shall see). The value or otherwise of continuing to restrict building on a cummerbund of territory around the capital created in the 1950s has become fiercer than ever lately, thanks to contemporary London’s acute housing need.
Only a fraction of green belt land actually lies within the boundaries of Greater London, though a surprising amount of Greater London lies within the green belt: about 22%, much of it in suburban boroughs such as Hillingdon and Bromley and most of it farmland. Discussion of its pros and cons is often distorted by visceral fears of England’s countryside being “concreted over” – fears Zac Goldsmith tried to exploit during last year’s mayoral election campaign.
Any attempt to raise the tone of the debate is therefore welcome. My friends at the London Society made a successful one last night. They asked how the green belt can be improved for the 21st Century. A panel of five responded. Merrick Denton-Thompson of the Landscape Institute argued for “a strategic review” of green belts everywhere. The original aims of preventing urban sprawl and ribbon development and of maintaining distinctions between town and country are, if anything, more critical than ever, he said. In some areas, there is a case for more of it. However: “In places, it strangles towns and cities. Is that a sustainable future?”
Next up, Richard Knox-Johnston, chair of the protectionist London Green Belt Council, contended that it is coming under needless threat because many aspects of London housing policy and supply are so wrong. Knox-Johnston can be added to the list of those for whom the redevelopments of the Heygate and Aylesbury estates in Southwark are totemic sins. He is also in the ranks of those who champion higher density housing and wants action against land banking. For him, preserving the London green belt as it is does not push up property prices by inhibiting supply, but “can increase pressure for more affordable housing”.
In crunching contrast, Richard Upton, deputy chief executive of regeneration developer U + I, said he would like to “march into the green belt and those exclusive golf courses” with a multi-disciplinary army of land use visionaries and start building homes Londoners want and need there. He wasn’t against green belt per se, but wanted a “fresh vision” for it. Higher densities in the city’s core were fine by him, but land scarcity and the economics that flow from it have so distorted the market that housing investment has become “a global hedge” for overseas investors, he said. This was bad, even though businesses like his could profit from it. (Note: 7% green belt land within Greater London is golf courses; an LSE report for Sadiq Khan on the impact of overseas buyers is on its way).
John Myers of the campaign group London Yimby – Yes In My Back Yard – made his case that no less than five million new homes could be produced in London without touching parks, playing fields or green belt if there were fewer two-storey semis and more residential properties of four and five, as in revered neighbourhoods like Bloomsbury. He proposed a radical form of hyperlocal democracy, whereby residents of individual London streets could vote to give every owner permission to extend their property. Far better to do this, in Myers’s view, than to break into protected zones far from the centre – this could only produce more private vehicle commuting including by driverless and even flying car.
To end, Alice Roberts from the Campaign to Protect Rural England in London said that increasing housing supply on green belt would just result in posh houses being built there and no reduction in London prices generally. Echoing Knox-Johnston, she upbraided developers for constraining supply in order to keep prices high: why have so few homes been built in Ebbsfleet, she inquired? Roberts lives in Clapton, in Hackney. So do I. She praised Hackney Council for encouraging the innovative development of small sites and Croydon’s Brick By Brick initiative. In short, she thinks the land London needs for housing is already there. It’s just a question of using it.
Conclusions? Mine are feebly tentative and quaveringly provisional, but here goes.
Paul Finch from The Architects’ Journal, who chaired the event, observed, mid-proceedings, that he had reached a point where he found himself agreeing with everyone. I sympathised. I also sympathised with the man from the London Forum who’d served on Boris Johnson’s Outer London Commission who said from the floor that he’d been shocked by how resistant some suburban boroughs were to getting more homes built in their areas. This underlined the need to educate people on the virtues of higher density housing and how attractive and high-quality it can be.
As for the green belt, it’s hard to see how the status quo can be defended in all respects. Yet if basic changes are to be made they must be robustly aligned with London’s need for both long-term housing affordability and inviolate green space that is truly accessible, environmentally helpful and put to best productive use. Resolving the tensions between these things will require a clear and bold investment of intellect, courage and public resources by politicians. One thing that shone through loud and clear from last night’s debate is that, sadly, there is little sign of this.