Time for some conscious uncoupling of London\’s Green Belt

[First published in Estates Gazette, 1 November 2019)]

Tackling the housing crisis was top of Sadiq Khan’s policy agenda in 2016. So, with the next mayoral election six months away, the publication of the planning inspectors’ report into the mayor’s draft London Plan – the blueprint for London’s growth – is a big moment.

There is some good news for City Hall in the report, published last week. The inspectors back the mayor’s plan as a whole, his assessment of housing need and also his affordable housing policies – including the threshold approach to fast-track permission, which they say is “appearing to bear fruit”.

But the report does challenge the mayor’s assessment of housing capacity, and in particular his expectation that small sites could supply 25,000 of the 65,000 homes planned each year. As the inspectors acknowledge, this would require a 250% increase in building on small sites in outer London boroughs – the very locations where dense development can provoke the most furious rows among neighbours, politicians and community groups. “Whilst the policy approach is aspirational,” the inspectors conclude, “its delivery is not realistic.”

They recommend halving the small sites target to 12,000 homes a year, giving an overall housing target of 52,000 a year. Given that London is projected to need 66,000 homes a year, of which 55,000 are simply to keep up with population growth (the rest being to deal with the backlog of need), this would leave London with a worsening housing shortage. The gap looks even wider if you use the government’s new calculations of need, which come up with an annual figure of 72,000 homes.

This may all seem a bit moot when London is only building around 30,000 homes a year, but balancing need and capacity is a foundation stone of town planning. The inspectors reject the Sisyphean suggestion – made by former secretary of state James Brokenshire what seems like a political aeon ago – that the plan should be immediately reviewed. Instead, they recommend that the mayor should lead a strategic review of London’s green belt, in the light of the projected shortfall of land for housing (and industrial uses).

This presents the mayor with a dilemma. His commitment to tackling London’s housing crisis is matched only by his commitment to preserving London’s green belt. And you can see why. Green belt reviews are popular among planners and policy wonks, but toxic for the general public; recent polling shows that opposition to building on or reviewing the green belt is as strong as ever.

All of which may suggest that it would be a “bold” politician (in the Yes Minister sense of the word) who agreed to lead a green belt review in what may be a multiple election year. Positions are entrenched, and debates about the green belt can be as fervent – and as futile – as debates about Brexit. But there is an opportunity here too: the mayor could bring light where there is currently just heat, and show that elected mayors can take the lead where governments freeze like marginal-seated rabbits in the headlights.

A review, in partnership with councils and communities, would be an opportunity to discuss the green belt’s role as a constraint on sprawl, for public recreation and as habitat, and to consider how different land uses meet these aims – rather than defending the green belt as sacrosanct in principle while allowing it to be nibbled away and leap-frogged in practice.

It could explore different options for change, from allowing building in railway station catchment areas to planning and building urban extensions, as exemplars of “good growth” rather than incoherent and exclusive car-based suburbs. It could consider how to substitute for any green space lost, and how to enhance the quality and accessibility of what remains.

The inspectors’ report suggests that, having grown by 30% in three decades, London is starting to strain against its boundaries. It feels like the moment for an open and rational debate about how the next 30 years’ growth can be environmentally responsible and socially inclusive. The next mayor of London – whoever that is – should lead this debate.

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