Britain’s Green Belt is Choking the Economy

My research into rural train stations’ potential to deliver millions of homes is mentioned in this article in the Economist.


Sadiq Khan should be bold. He should rethink the green belt

No aspect of planning policy is quite as divisive, or as misunderstood, as the green belt. Covering some 16,000km2, England’s 14 green belts occupy one-eighth of England’s total area (equivalent to three-quarters of the area of Wales, if that’s your preferred unit of measurement).

London’s metropolitan green belt alone stretches from Haslemere in Hampshire to the North Sea—a distance of some 100 miles—and with an area of over half a million hectares is over three times larger than the city itself.

Although its origins precede the Second World War, the green belt was formally established by the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which allowed planning authorities to protect open space with this designation. And while the policy has been extremely successful in achieving its original objective of constraining urban expansion, three-quarters of a century on, it’s surely time to reform this anachronistic policy and ensure it meets the needs of the modern world.

Among the marshes of estuary Essex and the undulating hills of Hampshire, there are motorways, waste transfer depots, landfill sites, distribution centres, poultry farms, golf courses and car parks that are all protected from development by the simple virtue of their presence within the green belt. Many areas of otherwise undeveloped space are of limited quality too.

One of the most prominent obstacles to a sensible discussion is the fact that the arguments for and against the green belt have become so utterly polarised. Listening to both sides of the debate, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we face a simple binary choice between the preservation of dwindling landscapes and concreting over every last inch of them. And yet, the green belt has actually grown in recent years. It’s preposterous to claim that it’s under threat.

While we can’t lay the blame for our pitiful national productivity solely at the feet of green-belt policy, it’s clear that our inability to build – whether it’s homes, railways or solar farms – in the places we need, is partly a product of misplaced constraints on development.

Lobby groups like the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) insist that any rethink of the green belt isn’t necessary, but these claims simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. Its latest State of Brownfield report confidently concluded that 1.2 million homes could be built on brownfield land alone, but this is only a quarter of the current shortfall, and certainly insufficient to meet future demands. Furthermore, many of the areas it proposed for new housing aren’t even in the places where need is most acute. I’m not aware of many CPRE members upping sticks from leafy Surrey to the post-industrial wastelands of northern Britain.

There’s a common misconception about the purpose of the green belt in the public sphere, with many mistakenly believing that its purpose is to protect precious rural landscapes. Close to where I live, campaigners against the Cockfosters car park development argued that planning permission should be refused because it would be visible from the green belt, as if the prospect of catching a glimpse of it whilst hurtling along the M25 was a prospect so horrific it didn’t bear thinking about.

In a poorly researched article in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins recently pondered why there wasn’t the same level of protection for the country’s rural parts in the same way that our cities are preserved by Conservation Areas. Any architect or planner could have pointed him towards a whole bunch of protections: AGLV, AONB, Ancient Woodland, SSSI, Ramsar and National Parks, to name a few. Rural areas in fact benefit from far more protections than our towns and cities do, but this is indicative of a wider misunderstanding of planning policy, where green belt is wrongly conflated with other designations that actually do pertain to landscape quality and biodiversity.

It is true that too many open spaces have been relinquished to low-quality, car-dependent sprawl, and nobody – other than the volume housebuilders – wants to see more of that. But, despite what the CPRE claims, we cannot build the homes our country needs on brownfield alone, so some release of open space is inevitable and probably desirable.

There’s a compelling argument that green-belt policy is actually damaging the valuable open spaces that the CPRE is keen to protect. Because building homes is so difficult in places with large areas of green belt, developers target sites beyond it, creating their unsustainable car-dependent sprawl on the outskirts of settlements instead.

Likewise, building new homes on brownfield land far from public transport makes little sense when we could instead cluster them around stations in rural areas, and as an added bonus, give millions of families convenient access to the countryside – something the CPRE claims to support. Not that this should be a free-for-all. Any release of green-belt land for development must be accompanied by robust masterplanning and design codes to ensure that when land is set aside, it is done in a way that is sustainable, accessible, and responsive to local character.

The amount of green belt that would need to be lost to provide a million new homes is so small that it’s little more than a rounding error. Even with modest densities, we’d lose just 1 per cent of the green belt to deliver a million homes. That’s a price worth paying.

Labour’s recent pronouncements in this respect are welcome – if vague . But there are encouraging signs from planning authorities, such as Enfield, that are prepared to tackle this challenge head-on. And emboldened by a lacklustre field of opposition candidates, the mayor of London might revisit his blanket opposition to green-belt release in the next iteration of his city-wide spatial plan. We can but hope.

It’s surely time to set ideology aside and face the fact that an evidence-based review of green-belt policy is long overdue. If we’re to have any chance of facing the challenges of the coming decades, we need to roll up our sleeves and, maybe, loosen our belts.

This article originally appeared in the Architects’ Journal.


Supporting Planning Applications for New Homes

Together with campaign group PricedOut, I’ve written a brief guide on how to support planning applications for new homes.

The planning system is too often skewed in favour of those who object to new housing in their area, so this guide sets out how those with little knowledge of how planning works can register their support for much-needed new housing.


The removal of the small sites policy from Sadiq Khan’s London Plan is a betrayal

Take a stroll around any London suburb and before long you’ll come across a pocket of land – a row of garages too small for modern cars, an overgrown gap of uncertain ownership nestled between houses, a sliver of broken concrete beside a railway line – which, with a little tenacity and creativity, could provide space for a new home or two. These sites exist in their thousands across London and are particularly abundant in the outer fringes of the city.

London itself is not very dense. Islington, with around 160 people per hectare, is the borough with the greatest number of people relative to its size. Bromley, with the smallest, has 22 people living in the same area. Compared to Paris and Madrid (neither of which could reasonably be described as unpleasant places to live), with figures of 213 and 286 per hectare respectively for the cities as a whole, it’s clear that London should be able to accommodate far more people than it already does.

In his version of the London Plan (the blueprint for London’s growth over the next ten years) Sadiq Khan set out ambitious targets for the delivery of new housing across the capital. Where the previous mayor, Boris Johnson, adopted a “blue doughnut” approach to planning, which capitulated to the Outer London, largely Conservative-voting, boroughs’ demands for more autonomy over planning decisions, Khan initially required those very councils on the edges of the city to do more to help deliver new homes. As an example of this new approach, Merton’s housing targets rocketed from just over 4,000 in the Johnson’s version of the London Plan to more than 13,000 in Khan’s – an increase of nearly 225 per cent.

For the first time, a key strategy of the Plan was the exploitation of small sites to help achieve overall housing targets. (Small sites, in this context, are defined as those providing up to 25 homes). Previous Plans had ignored the potential of such sites to make a significant dent in housing targets, largely because their capacity was so hard to quantify. Yet under the current Mayor this was to become an important component of the new housing strategy. In total, it required no less than 245,730 homes to be delivered on small sites over ten years—more than a third of the total housing target for London over that period.

To compel insubordinate councils to comply, the Plan included a controversial clause requiring them to adopt a “presumption in favour” of approval for small developments on sites close to stations or high streets, at the same time acknowledging that the character of some areas would need to evolve to accommodate London’s anticipated population growth.

Predictably, this was met with a hyperbolic response from Conservative politicians, with Andrew Boff, leader of the Tory group on the London Assembly, claiming that the policy amounted to “war on the suburbs”. Yet a less partisan analysis clearly shows that the Outer London boroughs are not doing nearly enough to combat the housing crisis. Even the government’s own, less ambitious, targets demonstrated that several of the suburban boroughs are falling short, with Havering achieving only a third of its target.

Prior to becoming official policy, any new London Plan has to go through a process of public consultation and interrogation by an independent planning inspector. With Mayor Khan’s draft new Plan, this took place in spring of 2019, with a queue of homeowning suburbanites duly trotting up to City Hall to lambast the Mayor’s proposals. Complaints were raised about the complex statistical methods for calculating the capacity of Outer London to deliver new homes and familiar, tired accusations that a wave of “garden grabbing” would be unleashed were made. Inevitably it was the least dense boroughs – and therefore the ones with the greatest capacity for growth – which pushed back hardest against the Mayor’s proposals.

The outcome of the examination was a resounding rejection of the small sites policy by the inspector, who called for its wholesale removal. A recently as November the Mayor rejected this call, claiming that London could indeed “deliver those homes within London’s boundaries with no development on the Green Belt” (the latter stance, by the way, was something else the inspector had recommended the Mayor reconsider). However, when the Mayor’s final version of the Plan appeared in December, the small sites policy was almost entirely gone – and with it the associated housing targets. In some cases the numbers had been slashed by half. Across London, this resulted in a total reduction of 125,000 potential homes.

What was the reason for this extraordinary change of heart? With an election looming, perhaps the Mayor was hopeful of making a political play for support in those boroughs currently holding fast against the red tide? After all, eight of the ten biggest reductions for small sites targets were in non-Labour voting boroughs, the same number that voted Conservative in the 2016 mayoral election. Perhaps it was felt that this policy risked holding up adoption of the Plan? That seems possible, though recent criticism by secretary of state for housing Robert Jenrick suggests that the government considers the Plan not to be ambitious enough. In his letter to the Mayor, Jenrick also objected to the Plan’s emphasis on building flats rather than family houses – something that small sites tend to deliver.

The idea that the suburbs continue to represent a bucolic escape from the grime and overcrowding of Inner London has long been anachronistic. With home ownership in the central boroughs now out of reach for most, Outer London is increasingly proving an acceptable compromise between commuting and housing costs. Change in the character of Outer London is inevitable as the city adapts to growth, yet in reality even the more ambitious small sites targets of the Plan would hardly have resulted in noticeable change in the character of suburban neighbourhoods. Dividing large houses into flats, small-scale development on infill sites, utilising scraps of redundant land and above shops: all of these count against the figures, and when spread across a wide area would barely be noticeable, even with the higher targets.

The claim that suburban boroughs are unable to deliver their fair share of the homes is preposterous: under the latest, less ambitious, version of the London Plan, Hackney – with a total area of 1,900 hectares – is, over the next decade, expected to deliver 6,580 homes on small sites compared to 2,950 in Hillingdon, despite the latter having an area six times larger. Inevitably some standards must change: policies that require a minimum distance between windows of no less than 20 metres, as is the case with many suburban boroughs, are no longer fit for purpose in a rapidly densifying city. As has consistently been pointed out by campaign group Create Streets, many of the older homes considered desirable today would not comply with contemporary planning policies.

The removal of the small sites policy from the London Plan represents a betrayal, not only for those citizens of London desperate to get a foot on the housing ladder but also for all of those small businesses so vital to the city’s construction economy: builders, developers and design professionals, for whom the risks inherent in the planning and delivery of small-scale developments are often too great to justify. With the last-minute extension to the Mayor’s term due to the coronavirus we can only hope for the reintroduction of the small sites policy so that we can get on with delivering the homes London needs.

This article was originally published by OnLondon.